By TAMARAH NEILL
Different opinions are a necessary part of a democracy.
David Toner, public affairs co-ordinator of a growing victim’s rights advocate group, Families Against Crime and Trauma (F.A.C.T.), who lost a son to violent crime, says “serious crime starts as youth crime,” and people “must” consider that when debating the accountability of youth crime in their communities.
Based in British Columbia, Families Against Crime and Trauma has about 200 registered members across Canada, and Toner says the “support and concern is growing as crime in our country grows.”
But is crime in Canada really growing? And more importantly, is it growing here in Niagara?
Youth Crime Co-ordinator for the Niagara Region, Nadine Wallace says that overall, Niagara has a “significantly” total lower crime rate than Canada’s national average.
“Niagara has a total population of about 430,000 people, and in 2007-2008 we had less than 1,000 youth charged.”
The John Howard Society of Canada, which according to a mission statement on its website, “is an organization of provincial and territorial societies comprised of and governed by people whose goal is to understand and respond to problems of crime and the criminal justice system. They are fiscally responsible for the continuance of the work and service of the National Office.”
Many offices for the society offer restorative approaches that they believe are more effective than punitive approaches.
Executive Director of the John Howard Society, Dr. Craig Jones says it’s important to look at the family context of a young offender and the context of the crime before taking action or passing judgment.
This is why it’s important to have a youth justice system separate from an adult justice system, says Jones.
Wallace says she agrees with the importance of having a separate justice system, and the idea that a “quick trip to custody will scare kids straight” isn’t true.
“Jailing kids leads to more reoffending, not less. It’s the meaningfulness and appropriateness of the sentence or consequence.”
Both experts say through scientific research and brain imaging, the courts have found the moral culpability of young offenders in cause and effect to be impaired and undeveloped.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a person’s ability to organize thoughts, think things through, set priorities, weigh one’s options, consider the consequences of one’s actions, delay gratification, suppress impulses and make sound decisions, says Wallace.
“We know their [the youth] brains aren’t fully developed yet. In fact, we know that the most important part of their brain for decision making [prefrontal cortex] is actually the last to develop.”
Wallace says this thinking, rational part of the brain is truly a work in progress that will not be completed until a person is in his or her mid 20s.
According to Jones, most crimes committed at a young age are crimes of “impulse and pressure.”
The first priority of the John Howard Society of Canada, he says, is to prevent people from getting involved in the justice system in the first place.
“We do this through youth programs. One of our biggest efforts is to get young people through school.
If you can get the offender to finish high school, the likelihood of offending or re-offending drops greatly.”
Often, the family environments of these young people contain violence and substance abuse that result in neglect of that person, says Jones.
The average person does not have enough knowledge from a scientific and logical perspective to consider this when considering the accountability of the youth, adding that this is “usually” how the attitude deeming the Youth Criminal Justice System as “too light” is developed by society.
Another “important” factor to consider, according to Jones, is that every situation is different.
“Such youth often drop out of school, and often have psychological conditions.”
This includes learning disorders and behavioural disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyper-active Disorder.
What is unfortunate for the victims and their families, according to Jones, is that the justice system is a “blunt instrument” for helping victims.
“It has a completely different mission, which is to stigmatize and punish.”
Advocate groups like F.A.C.T. recognize this as well.
Toner says “very little” in law supports the victims rights agenda, but some progress is being made.
“The criminal justice system is more about the criminal than anyone else, and we are trying to bring out a more balanced approach.”
Representatives from both opposing groups do agree with one thing: the federal government isn’t recognizing the concerns of the people to a high enough degree when putting together a justice system that is suitable for all members of society.
“When the politicians are considering input from advocates, they will naturally filter out the radical element, and tend to respect those who hold the views they themselves adhere to,” says Toner.
“As Ottawa is the seat of federal power, it’s important more people there speak up to the policy makers. We in the West often feel that Ottawa is not listening.”
Like Toner, Jones also seems to feel strongly about the government’s involvement, saying that “Overall, Canada’s justice system is good, but the problem is from time to time politicians like to f—k around with it for political gain and benefit, with no real intention to better the system for the people.”
The John Howard Society of Canada has an office in Welland at 620 Niagara St., connected with Job Gym at the intersection of Niagara and Aqueduct streets.
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