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Youth crime law to get overhaul

Ottawa to consult with provinces on possible amendments - Won't appeal Quebec ruling declaring parts unconstitutional

Toronto Star, by ANDREW CHUNG, OTTAWA BUREAU, May 2, 2003, page A6

OTTAWA - The federal government will not appeal a Quebec court ruling that declared certain provisions in the new Youth Criminal Justice Act unconstitutional.

And Justice Minister Martin Cauchon made it clear yesterday it is already open to other changes in the act, which only came into effect April 1.

The act, which has been fiercely opposed by Quebec as too harsh and Ontario as too lenient, attempted to strike a balance between getting tough with youth who commit serious crimes and rehabilitating less serious offenders with non-jail solutions.

But already it appears set for the same fate as its predecessor, the much-maligned 1984 Young Offenders Act, often criticized as not tough enough and frequently amended in response to pressure from the provinces, police and victims groups.

The government will go ahead with consultations with the provinces to determine what amendments should be made to the act, Cauchon said.

Amendments will not be put in place until at least the fall.

Quebec viewed the federal law as overly harsh, infringing on provincial jurisdiction and violating the legal and human rights of young people. The province challenged its constitutionality by referring the matter to the Quebec Court of Appeal.

A court tribunal ruled on March 31 that two sections of the Act, dealing with sentencing a minor as an adult, and having a youth's identity publicly disclosed, violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Cauchon acknowledged the ruling in the House of Commons yesterday — the last day to appeal — and said the government would not argue against it at the Supreme Court.

"We have decided today to not proceed with an appeal," Cauchon said, "since there is means to meet the intention of the legislation in a different way."

The appeal court found it wrong that the onus was on the young offender to argue against a tougher adult sentence being imposed rather than on the crown to argue why it should be.

It also didn't like the burden being placed on the young offender to argue that information about his or her sentence should not be made public, said Catherine Latimer, the justice department's director-general of youth justice policy.

But the burden will now be on the crown to show the sentences are necessary and that information can be publicly revealed, Latimer said.

"The public needs to be assured adult penalties will still be available," she said.

Latimer stressed the Quebec ruling was a declaratory judgment — in effect, an opinion of the judges — that does not strike down the provisions of the act.

"Our conclusion is that our policy objectives can be achieved without violating rights," she added.

The new act requires police to consider alternatives to laying a criminal charge, including letting a youth off with a warning, a formal caution or referring the youth to a community program. Judges are also obliged to consider all reasonable alternatives to custody.

It's tougher in some ways. For instance, it lowers, to 14 from 16 , the age at which it's presumed youths will be sentenced as adults for crimes such as homicide and aggravated sexual assault.

Canada now has one of the highest youth-incarceration rates among Western countries.