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SHOULD 10-YEAR OLDS FACE A JUDGE?

(Front page - main headline)

Justice Minister Vic Toews thinks so. He wants the age at which courts intervene in a delinquent child's life lowered from 12

Minister: Goal is treatment, not jail

The Toronto Star, (Canada's largest daily newspaper in Canada's most populous city), TRACEY TYLER, LEGAL AFFAIRS REPORTER, Aug. 15, 2006.

ST. JOHN'S - Justice Minister Vic Toews says the Youth Criminal Justice Act may need to be changed so children as young as 10 and 11 who "run afoul of the law" can be brought to court.

Speaking to members of the Canadian Bar Association at their annual meeting here yesterday, Toews said he is considering amending the legislation to give judges authority over alleged young offenders at a much earlier stage than allowed currently. The act now applies to youths between 12 and 18.

Toews said he is considering that possibility not because he thinks someone that young should be jailed, but because he thinks youth courts should have the power to intervene in the lives of younger children who have fallen "under the influence of criminal elements."

A judge could be given the power to "assist" a child by ordering treatment or some other "disposition," Toews said, adding that his main interest is treatment, not imprisonment.

Courts should be able to step in before a child has established a pattern of behaviour that could have harmful, long-term consequences, he said.

"I'm sometimes provided with anecdotes about people coming to the court by age 12 and they've had a horrendous involvement with the police and other social agencies, but the courts have been unable to intervene."

"There needs to be Read More ..exibility in the act," he told reporters later. "We need to find ways of ensuring children are deterred from crime. And one of the frustrations that has been expressed to me is that sometimes children, by the time they're 12 because the courts have been unable to access them under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, have in fact established a pattern of conduct that will be harmful over the long term.

"I don't think, when it comes to young people of that age, that we can afford to wait."

"So we need to have a special way for the courts, I think, to intervene, in a positive fashion, in the lives of these children in some type of a treatment program and I think that needs to be discussed."

A child wouldn't necessarily have to be charged criminally in order to be brought to court, Toews added.

Legislation dealing with juvenile delinquents, which predates the Youth Criminal Justice Act of 2003, contained provisions that allowed members of the community to come before the courts, in the interests of the child, to seek assistance for problem behaviour, he said.

The number of youths charged by police has been gradually declining of late because the act allows police greater discretion when dealing with young people. In 2003/04, there were about 33,800 admissions to supervised youth correctional services with about 52 per cent in custody and 48 per cent on probation. About nine out of 10 youths in custody serve six months or less.

Lowering the age could fill a gap in the current system, said Nicholas Bala, a law professor at Queen's University.

Bala said children as young as 10 do commit violent crimes but he added: "There should be restrictions written into the legislation to make it clear that this should be reserved for the most serious repeat offenders."

Debra Pepler, a York University professor of clinical developmental psychology and a Hospital for Sick Children psychologist, said cogitative development should be considered before this change is made because children under 12 can't think into the future.

"They aren't able to predict what the consequences of their behaviour will be," said Pepler.

Louise Botham, president of Ontario's Criminal Lawyers' Association, said Toews' suggestion begs the question of whether Ottawa is willing to pay for the treatment programs a child would be ordered to attend.

If such treatment programs are up and running, one might legitimately ask why it's necessary to route a child through the court system, Botham said.

"What kind of a magic is a judge going to have?" she said.

Toews seems to be suggesting the justice system is a "panacea" for society's problems, she said.

But while child welfare programs are supposed to take care of children under 12 who show signs of heading toward a life of crime, Toews said that's not what's happening, as he understands it. Instead of dealing with the problem, social agencies are waiting until the child turns 12 and the criminal justice system assumes responsibility, he said.

In the United States, only 16 states have a minimum age for juvenile court, ranging from 10 in several states to 6 in North Carolina. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the minimum is 10. It is 8 in Scotland.

But in May the Philippines raised the age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 15.

with files from Anna Piekarski