Why Changing the YOA Does Not Impact Youth Crime: Developing Effective Prevention Programs for Children and Adolescents

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CPA Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology as a Profession (1998) -- Prix de la SCP pour contribution remarquable a la psychologie en tant que profession (1998)

The ultimate solution to the problems of violence is primary prevention. Our society is creating violent children and youth at a rate far faster than we could ever treat, rehabilitate or even lock them away. No single intervention strategy will solve these heterogeneous problems. No set of intervention strategies will solve these transgenerational problems. In order to solve the problem of violence, we need to transform our culture. (Perry, 1997, p. 10).

The Canadian public is very concerned about youth crime and, in particular, youth violence. These opinions are shaped in large part by the media which profiles violent youth crime in a sensational manner. Consider the following articles:

A Globe and Mail featured story entitled: "Natural Born Killers" with a sub-heading of "Childhood." (Savage, 1998). The large print on this page raises the author's essential question: "Should they be punished as adults or should we think of them as malleable and unformed creatures who need our protection no matter how terrible their deeds?" Apparently the reader only has these two choices.

A headline story entitled, "Armed Kiddie Crime Wave," which is really about the prediction of a future adult crime wave when today's teens are adults. (London Free Press, 1995).

An opinion column by David Frum about 15-year-old Kipland Kinkel (who killed his parents and then two students in a shooting rampage in Springfield, Oregon) in which Frum recommends condemning the boy as well as his act stating that "some people are just wicked." Regardless of one's view on intrinsic evil, it is disconcerting that Frum links this crime to society's inability to judge or punish. (Frum, 1998).

A front page, Globe & Mail headline that claims "Teen's torture again reveals girls' brutality," encouraging the view that many girls are extremely violent. The article catalogues the most serious offences committed by female adolescents across Canada, and suggests that one can make generalizations about the nature of girls from these incidents. (Vincent, I, 1998).

In a story entitled, "Youth Crime expected to rise 15%," a chief of police is quoted as saying "we are now in a bit of a lull before we get whacked later," as a way of describing the fact that youth crime is down now, but is projected to increase by 15% in the next three years according to demographics ("Youth Crime expected to rise 15%"). (Harder, 1998).

The average Canadian depends on the media as their main source of knowledge about youth crime. When they keep reading articles such those reported above, their conclusions would have to be that violence is increasing at alarming rates, that violent young people represent a disproportionate risk to our communities, and, perhaps, that youth are the "number one public enemy".

However, Canadian statistics based on the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Survey, victim surveys (e.g., General Social Survey) and youth court cases, do not support the images and messages the media conveys. For example, the violent crime case rate in youth court increased between 1992-93 and 1993-94 and decreased annually from 1994 through 1996-97. This translates into a slight increase of 1.9% overall for the nineties (i.e., the rate per 10,000 youths moved from 94 to 95 from 1992-93 to 1996-97, respectively), despite the fact that the violent crime case rate has decreased in recent years (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1998a). The homicides committed by 12 to 17-year-olds appear to have remained relatively stable from 1986 to 1997 (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1998b and 1996). The data for 1977 and 1981 homicides (pre-Young Offenders Act) are at a higher rate than in 1991, 1994, and 1996 (post-Young Offenders Act). To put this in perspective, over 90% of homicides are committed by adults. …