Youth Crime, Moral Panics, and the News: The Conspiracy against the Marginalized in Canada

By Schissel, Bernard | Social Justice, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Youth Crime, Moral Panics, and the News: The Conspiracy against the Marginalized in Canada


Schissel, Bernard, Social Justice


Introduction

Canada's war on crime, similar to that in many other countries, IS quickly becoming a war against youth. From varying proposals to reintroduce the death penalty for young killers to the implementation of mandatory boot camps for all young offenders, Canadian society is embarking on a crusade to increase punishment for children, ostensibly in the hope of curbing crime. The focal point for this neoconservative-based law-and-order campaign is the Young Offenders Act. Critics of the act argue that it is too lenient, that youth are not deterred because of the soft punishments determined by the act- in favor of excessive human rights provisions - and that the act releases adolescent dangerous offenders into the society to become adult offenders.

The generalized law-and-order mindset in Canada, which currently typifies many other countries, seems to stand in contradistinction to the overall principles of Canada's Young Offenders Act (YOA), wherein prevention and rehabilitation are constructive and punishment and criminalization are ultimately destructive to the young offender and to the society. The act, as a progressive, libertarian, and compassionate approach to youth, attempts to use community-based noncarceral alternatives to formal punishment, to provide rather short-term maximum sentences for even the most dangerous offenders, to minimize labeling through ensuring anonymity via publication bans, and to provide that the civil rights of the young offender are met through adequate legal and parental representation in court.

Fiscal realities, however, have left the goals of the YOA unmet in many respects. Programs and organization systems that were supposed to replace the formal justice system are poorly realized and police and court officials are left with little alternative but to use the formal legal code in ministering to young offenders. The state's inability to support the spirit and intent of the YOA has given right-wing political movements ample fodder for their "we told you so" agenda. With the rise of street kids (a social/political problem, not a criminal phenomenon) and with a profusion of highly publicized violent crimes committed by youth, the "war on young offenders" is a cause celebre that politicians seem unable to resist.

I contend that we are on the verge of an acute "moral panic" in this country that, if allowed to continue, will result in the sweeping indictment of adolescents, especially those who are marginalized and disadvantaged. The result will be the continuing scapegoating of youth for political purposes and, as is the irony of punishment, the alienation of a more uncompromising, more disaffiliated youth population. It is hardly insightful that if you increase punishment to any living organism, you greatly increase the likelihood of violence and alienation. Despite the hollow political rhetoric to the contrary, Canadians scarcely consider children a valuable resource. In fact, we consider them to be one of our most dangerous threats.

Interestingly, many of the panics that typified the 1960s and 1970s appear today in similar form, if not content. As described by a newly developing body of current literature on moral panics (Kappeler, Blumberg, and Potter, 1993; Painter, 1993; Jenkins, 1991), public perceptions of the degree and form of violent crime are largely inaccurate, exaggerated, and based on stereotypical accounts of youth subcultures: the gang. Overall, however, little attention has been paid to the moral outrage that has greeted all youth, not just identifiable gang members - although gang membership and race are often used to underscore the presumed violent and organized nature of youth crime. This is not to suggest that the moral panic surrounding youth crime is subtle or hidden. On the contrary, the attack on youth has been vocal, concerted, and politicized, fostered by the portrayal of idiosyncratic examples of youth crime as typical.

The existing public debates on youth crime, although largely uninformed, are able to focus public opinion and to effect social-control policy that stigmatizes and controls those who are most disadvantaged and most victimized. …

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