Castlegar residents were informed that five youth, all under the age of 16, allegedly started the Woodland Park School fire and it is likely, statistically speaking, that youths are responsible for most, if not all, of the vandalism in town.
It is distressing to know that if these youths do get caught or go to court, they can feel assured that the severity of the sentences will not match the seriousness of their crimes. Worse still, the community affected by this senseless arson and vandalism will never know who these youths are and possibly never be informed of the outcome of a trial, if one even takes place.
It is for reasons such as these that, for decades, Canadians have been demanding a tougher approach to youth crime. Nevertheless, it seems even the most atrocious crimes are treated with a degree of leniency in sentencing and an unwarranted protection of the offender’s identity that is, in my opinion, abusive not only to the victims, but to the entire community. Judges are forced to impose inadequate sentences like “Teen given house arrest in brutal axe attack” (Vancouver Sun, June 18, 2008) because of a legislative framework that appears to stress the “needs” of the offender be placed above all other considerations. In many instances, we observe young offenders being absolved of their crimes before they even get to a courtroom and then released into an unsuspecting society.
The failure of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) is the end result of judges being instructed to consider “all reasonable alternatives to custody” (38,2,d) and should “be the least restrictive sentence that is consistent with the overall goal of youth sentencing” (38,e,i) despite the fact that there has been a 30 per cent increase in violent youth crime since 1991 and that over 25 percent of all youth crimes are property crimes (Statistics Canada). This leniency is defended by the Department of Justice, which stated, “young people are still developing their skills in judgment and foreseeing the consequences of their actions,”. I only need to reflect on this statement for a moment before being outraged by how repugnant the implication really is.
It should not be acceptable to believe that a 15- or 16-year-old cannot use their own judgment to know that plunging an axe into someone’s spine or lighting a building on fire is wrong and that the consequences for doing either would be destructive, particularly since we allow 14-year-olds to use guns and they can consent to sex (there is a "close-in-age exception," meaning 14- and 15-year-olds can have sex with someone who is less than five years older). Just how many buildings have to burn to the ground before we finally admit the obvious –that our youth are cleverer than the Department of Justice is prepared to concede?
Added to the reckless leniency of the YCJA is the belief that publicizing the names of young offenders would make it difficult for them to re-integrate into society, and that they would endure needless tension and hardship. Nonetheless I, as a father of four, believe that I should have the right to know if my 16-year-old's new buddy is a convicted arsonist or if my 13-year-old's boyfriend was convicted of sexual assault; and our community should have the right to know who jeopardized the lives of our firefighters and deliberately destroyed a building.
It’s regrettable, but I believe that the YCJA prevents this from happening and the Woodland Park School will become another casualty of the YCJA, the alleged arsonists will remain free and nameless and our community will never see justice.