The Need to Reform the YOA in Response to Violent Young Offenders: Confusion, Reality or Myth?

Article excerpt


Although it was once heralded as the first major "social justice bill" to come before Parliament in three decades (House of Commons, 1981-82-83), it is doubtful that the tenth anniversary of the implementation of the Young Offenders Act (YOA) in 1994 will be cause for celebration among many Canadians. Controversial from the outset, the Act has attracted unabated public criticism during its short life, principally from crime control(2) advocates such as the police and increasingly vocal victims' rights groups, and largely in response to high profile cases of murder or other brutal acts of violence by young persons. In response to these tragic events, citizen groups have emerged in various parts of the country - principally Ontario, British Columbia, and the Prairie provinces - to gather petitions, conduct public meetings, and lobby federal and provincial politicians to toughen an Act that is seen as soft, devoid of deterrence and, in the extreme, giving young people a "license to kill".

Attacks on the YOA are not, however, solely limited to concerns about how the Act addresses serious youth violence. They also reflect concerns about repeat young offenders and child offenders. Police critics, such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and individual officers, as well as other law and order interest groups, argue that there is little, if any, deterrence because the YOA does not allow for severe or lengthy punitive sentences, and judges are reluctant to use the available custody options as often as they should. Many repeat young offenders are seen as "laughing" at the youth justice system because, these critics argue, if these youths play the adversarial "game" (e.g., remain silent during interrogation) they learn from their cohorts or previous experience, they will either go unconvicted or only receive tariffed sentences - starting with diversion, then community service, probation, and short detention stays, and only infrequently ending up with longer stays in custody.

Procedural safeguards respecting the admissibility of confession evidence (s.56 YOA) are also under attack. They are seen by the police, and many prosecutors, as a major impediment in gathering evidence and obtaining convictions, especially with some property crimes, like breaking and entering, where fingerprint, witness, or material evidence may be lacking.

Critics also argue that because the YOA has established a minimum age of twelve years, increasingly sophisticated and sometimes violent children are permitted to commit serious crimes with impunity, and, therefore, crime continues to escalate out of control. Their hands tied, the police can only watch and wait until these destructive children turn twelve; only then can they act, but, even then, the Act is still seen as weak and ineffectual.

In some cases, there are connections between the police, many of whom derisively refer to the Act as the "Youth Protection Act", and public lobby groups advocating for reform of the YOA. For example, Scott Newark is a full-time paid lobbyist whose Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime monitors violent cases and acts as an information resource for both the media and politicians. Interestingly, funding for this organization comes from the Canadian Police Association and a police publishing group. Similarly, another law and order lobby group, the Citizen's Coalition, was founded by a retired Ontario police officer, Gordon Domm (1993), who predicts:

The pendulum is starting to move in our favour. For the last 30 years, the anti-punishment group has had control. They have made a mess of things. Now it is our turn, the punishment people. Punishment works. (Addario 1993)

The print and electronic media have played a key role in capitalizing on these public and law enforcement concerns about the YOA. Indeed, many would argue that media sensationalism has been instrumental in heightening public fear and anxiety about youth crime and the inadequacies of the YOA. …