Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Pierrefonds-Dollard.
I rise today to respond to the motion under debate respecting the Young Offenders Act. The government is very much aware of Canadians' concerns respecting youth crime.
During the election we campaigned on the need for reform of the Young Offenders Act. Since the election the Minister of Justice has indicated on several occasions his desire to proceed expeditiously to respond to some of the key concerns in this area with an amending bill in the very near future.
In addition, the minister has also indicated his commitment to a review of the entire act. This will be undertaken by the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs over the course of the coming year.
I am a member of the justice committee and I am particularly pleased to be part of the committee that will be doing the review of the Young Offenders Act. The act is now 10 years old. As it happens I had just finished law school at the University of Saskatchewan when the Young Offenders Act was introduced. Our class was among the first to do a very detailed study of what was then a new act so I am pleased to be part of the group that will be reviewing the act after 10 years of practice.
One aspect of the committee will be to listen to the viewpoints of all Canadians, to listen to the concerns that are certainly very real.
The Young Offenders Act creates a separate system of justice for young people. It has a unique spirit and philosophy which seeks both the protection of society and takes into account the special needs of youthful offenders.
The Young Offenders Act provides for a balance between the imperatives of assuring public protection and meeting the needs of our young people who run afoul of the law. We should not forget that the interests of society do include the objective of rehabilitation of young people as well as for the protection of society itself.
The interests of society also dictate that we should allow young people to mature and, as the hon. member just mentioned, to learn from their mistakes and that is a need for a separate juvenile justice system. We believe that the protection of society entails two obligations: preventing young people from committing criminal offences and helping young people who commit crimes to become law-abiding citizens again.
As a parent I subscribe to the principle that young people are responsible for their actions. I am also cognizant of the fact however that young people are not on an equal footing with adults in terms of their degree of responsibility and if they were I would probably not need to be a parent.
Owing to their state of dependence and the level of development and maturity of young people they have special needs. These needs include counselling and support as well as supervision, discipline and guidance. The adequacy of the Young Offenders Act for youth involved in very serious offences however has become a major public issue in Canada.
From a public perspective there is a strong lobby for increased sentences in the belief that they would offer enhanced protection to the public, provide general deterrents and reaffirm fundamental norms regarding the sanctity of life and societal repudiation of the crime of murder. Canadians must have confidence in the laws designed to protect them.
One of the major concerns of the public relates to minimum age of criminal responsibility which under the present legislation is 12. Many would like to see it lowered to 10. Under the
previous legislation, the juvenile delinquents act, the minimum age of criminal responsibility was seven years of age.
Support for lowering the age to 10 is not new. In the consultations and debates leading up to the passage of the Young Offenders Act, some observers made much the same argument we are hearing now, that we should have a lower age of 10. Others suggested it should be as high as 14. The age of 12 finally received broad support in the belief that, generally speaking children under 12 would not have the knowledge and experience to appreciate fully the nature and consequences of their actions, nor would they be able to participate meaningfully in the proceedings against them. These capacities of course are fundamental to a fair and just criminal prosecution.
Another concern of the public relates to the maximum age of criminal responsibility, the upper end of the scale under the Young Offenders Act. It has been suggested to lower to 16 years the maximum age under the Young Offenders Act. The issue surrounding the maximum age also received a great deal of attention in the debates that preceded the passage of the Young Offenders Act in 1982. The inclusion of 16 and 17-year olds in the juvenile system was done in the belief that it was in the best interests of youth and Canadian society that young persons be dealt with in this manner.
For the vast majority of young offenders, particularly those committing less serious offences, the current age limit allows them the time to mature away from the influence of older, more hardened adult offenders. I think this is the point that was being made by the member from Edmonton.
The government is committed to a juvenile justice system which will effectively seek to provide protection for our communities, to hold young people responsible for their illegal acts, but also to take into account any special needs a youth may have which are pertinent to the youth's offending behaviour and therefore relevant to the goal of rehabilitation.
The issues of minimum and maximum ages are very important to the operation of the act and Canadians' belief in it. Consequently this issue will be looked at in the context of the broad based review of the juvenile justice system. This will allow all views on the issue to be examined in the context of an overall examination of the act.
Another public concern has to do with the publication of the name of the young offender. It has been suggested that the name of the young person who has committed or who is alleged to have committed an indictable offence where this youth has been previously convicted on at least two separate occasions be published. There is scope under the current Young Offenders Act to allow for the details of an offence or a trial to be reported. Broad coverage of the youth justice system, the trends, the profiles of youth and successful programs is permitted under the present act.
It is important however to distinguish between perception and reality. The current emphasis, particularly in the media on extreme or exceptional cases, creates a distorted picture of juvenile crime and its treatment by the justice system. In view of that it is important to understand that there are a number of reasons that support the prohibition on publication of information serving to identify young accused, including such things as the protection of innocent siblings of offenders from shame and possible ostracism, encouragement to youth to comply with a disposition and to remain free from further involvement in crime, prevention of barriers arising that may stand in the way of a youth becoming more positively involved in a community, including employment and educational opportunities.
We must also remember the families of young offenders are often part of the rehabilitation process and the prohibition on publication may enhance their capacity to move forward positively for the benefit of the youth, the family and the community.
In the context of public safety the publication of a youth's identity may foster an illusion of public safety. The media however can only offer selective publicity rather than full reporting of all cases to a limited segment of the population.
Balanced against this however is the protection of society. The Minister of Justice has indicated in his response to the throne speech that he is in favour of a greater sharing of information about convicted young offenders with those who need to know for reasons of safety. He has also indicated that he intends to include provisions related to information sharing in the June bill.
I would like to comment quickly on an important election proposal to increase the maximum penalty available in youth court for first and second degree murder. Again the Minister of Justice has indicated he is committed to increased sentences for certain violent crimes, including murder.
In the June bill, the Minister of Justice will develop his proposals in a way that will seek to improve the juvenile justice system and to promote more effective and efficient measures to help young offenders while providing protection for the public.
In many cases the criminal behaviour of youths appearing before the youth courts constitutes an isolated and often not very serious act. For a much smaller percentage of youth however, their criminal behaviour is part of a pattern of more serious difficulties. It is essential to understand the special needs of these youths if their interests and indeed the long term interests of society are to be met.
Canada's Young Offenders Act has received international recognition by the United Nations as a model for juvenile
justice. It clearly takes a bold step by delineating the parameters of criminal law for youth and permitting resort to criminal law sanctions only for behaviour which is clearly criminal.
In doing so however, it has firmly entrenched the recognition that adolescents are to be distinguished from adults because their needs are distinct and therefore warrant a distinct response. This distinction must not however detract from the principle that society is entitled to protection from the criminal activity of youth.
Canadian courts have interpreted interests of society to mean both protection of the public and rehabilitation of offenders. This dual interpretation places a very heavy onus on the juvenile justice system to deliver on both fronts. The magnitude of this task is best illustrated when youths are involved in violent crimes or chronic reoffending. These classes of offenders reveal the multidimensional nature of the challenge facing those involved in the juvenile justice system and the challenge that lies ahead of us.