One of the primary objectives of the Young Offenders Act is to fashion dispositions which provide adequate public protection while maximizing the opportunities for the rehabilitation of young offenders. While Canadians may have different views on how this objective can be met, it seems clear that our fundamental goal is to ensure that as many youth as possible become fully participating and contributing members of our society as adults, in accordance with the values of our society.
The changes which the government has introduced to the act in Bill C-37, which is currently before the Senate, attempt to clarify the distinction between appropriate responses for non-violent versus violent offences. The bill further states that young persons who are not convicted of crimes involving serious offences can be held accountable for their actions through non-custodial dispositions. There is an opportunity, in our view, for greater use of more constructive dispositions such as compensation, restitution, and community service in situations where public safety is not at issue.
With regard to offences of violence, Bill C-37 is clear that public protection must be given priority in assessing the nature and length of dispositions appropriate for these offences. The maximum sentences for youth charged with murder who remain within the youth justice system have been lengthened to ensure that public confidence in the system is not undermined by responses which seem disproportionate to the gravity of the crime. Bill C-37 provides that 16 and 17-year old offenders charged with very serious offences, such as murder, manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault, will be presumed to be dealt with in adult court unless they can satisfy the court that the competing interests of public protection and their rehabilitation can be reconciled within the youth justice system.
A review of actual sentencing practices and the rate of recidivism is one criterion by which attainment of the objectives of the act can be measured. Are offenders charged with serious crimes of violence receiving sentences which provide adequate protection to the public while affording them opportunities for rehabilitation? We know that only 19 per cent of crime committed by young persons involves violence, Youth Court Statistics 1993-94, in Juristat , January 1995, Vol. 15, No. 3, p. 7. Some suggest, in fact, that young offenders are more likely to receive dispositions which are more onerous than adults.
Another criterion for assessing whether the objectives of the act have been realized is the degree of public confidence in the youth justice system. In part, this is also a public information issue as there appears to be some misconceptions about the nature and length of sentences given in respect of crimes involving youth. There are statistics which indicate that there appears to be a gradual increase in the use of custody in respect of young offender dispositions and that much of this custody is used in respect of property offenders. Not many Canadians appear to know how the youth system actually operates and how successful it has been. Public legal education is an important initiative with which the Department of Justice is involved in conjunction with other government departments.
In terms of the efforts the Department of Justice has made to evaluate the success of the act, this work is already under way. The Department of Justice, in collaboration with the provinces, set up a Federal-Provincial-Territorial Youth Justice Task Force to prepare a report by the fall for ministers and deputy ministers respecting various pertinent issues relevant to youth justice. Some of the issues being canvassed are appropriate mechanisms to deal with serious offenders, a determination of the interrelationship between the justice system and other services, such as health and child welfare, and the role of diversion in responding to criminal behaviour.
Informing all of this work is recognition of the need to formulate a scheme which is responsive to public conerns about the youth justice system, while at the same time maximizing opportunities for constructive responses to youth crime. That process will give us a very comprehensive assessment about the ability of the Young Offenders Act to meet its objectives.
The Department of Justice is also in constant contact with legal experts and practitioners in the youth justice system during the formulation of policy which affects young offenders. These inter-actions provide the department with ongoing feedback about the effectiveness of the Young Offenders Act.
Current public discussion about the Young Offenders Act has also alerted law makers to the limitations of legislation. We are quite convinced that legislation alone will not eliminate youth crime. Poverty, unemployment, family violence, racism, illiteracy, alcoholism and drug abuse and many other factors may contribute to criminal acts by young people and adults alike. In this regard, Bill C-37 expressly recognizes that crime prevention is essential to the long term protection of society and requires addressing the underlying causes of crime by young persons. In turn, this mandates the need to develop multi-disciplinary approaches to identifying and effectively responding to children and young persons at risk of committing offending behaviour in the future.
Question No. 169-