I have a confession to make: I was a bad kid. I was rebellious, I was anti-authority, I did or tried to do what I thought was cool without much concern for what was right. Up until my eighteenth birthday and probably a bit beyond that I was more than a handful, nearly getting expelled from school on a number of occasions and spending more time in one form or other of punishment than anyone should. I was mouthy, arrogant and obnoxious, a know-it-all, and to make matters worse I may not have been too book-smart but I figured out early on how to manipulate those I needed to when it was to my benefit.
For all the trouble I got into I only had one opportunity to find myself in trouble with actual authorities – not the principal of my school but with the police, and frankly it was a stupid issue in which I was charged for carrying a Swiss Army knife in a downtown arcade. The knife in question was never used nor intended to threaten anyone, but that summer there was a rash of knife attacks in Montreal and the police were cracking down, and I found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I went before the judge, served ten hours of community service at a soup kitchen, and the judge gave me back my Swiss Army knife.
Of course you would never know any of this because I was fourteen or fifteen at the time, and those records would have been sealed when I became am adult, by which time I was well on my way to being a model citizen. For all my tough talk and bad attitude to my recollection nobody ever got hurt beyond the occasional black eye or bruised rib… and more often than not I came out as bad if not worse than the other guy. I thank providence and to some extent my parents that I never hurt anyone else (I hurt myself plenty) bad enough that they would remember it.
This week in the Greater Toronto Area there were a number of attacks perpetrated by youths that are despicable. To name one, a fourteen year old (who was apparently out on parole for another offence) carjacked an elderly woman at gunpoint. He stole her car and ran over her arm as he drove away. Recently three youths were beaten within an inch of their lives by a mob of forty at a local high school.
I believe that the Young Offenders Act is a good idea… it gives kids a second chance after doing something stupid. Unfortunately it also says that kids who commit truly despicable crimes – murder, sexual assault, brutal assaults – cannot be punished with anything more than a slap on the wrist.
There has to be an alternative. Punishments are not only a way of trying to reduce crime by warning potential offenders, it is also a way of protecting society from danger. Crime must be punished if we as a society are going to have any hope of protecting the innocent.
Of course as a civilized society we have altered over time the way in which we can punish offenders. Gone are such punishments as the rack and chaining prisoners to the wall in a dungeon. We have made corporal punishment – physical assault or torture of any kind – a crime, and Canada eliminated the Death Penalty in the 1970s, after not having executed a criminal since December, 1962. Prisoners have cable television and the Internet, and though I do not claim that prisoners have a good life, they probably are not meant to, and the life they do have is better than some free men.
It would be folly to argue that the majority of youth offenders do not know right from wrong; you can argue that with violence in the media and in video games kids are desensitized to it. I grew up watching violent movies where people carried guns – both for good and for bad – and people who were shot with them were either hurt or killed (with the possible exception of the A-Team, which to this day holds the record for the TV show with the highest number of people with bad aim firing assault rifles every week that never hit anyone, but by the mere threat of more bad shooting caused the greatest number of bad guys to surrender). When I walked into the arcade in the summer of nineteen eighty-something with my utility knife I knew full well that were I to take it out and stab someone with it they would bleed and it would be wrong. I suspect that had my parents not taught me that I would have gotten it from any number of war, ninja, or James Bond movies that my friends and I watched constantly.
The youth committing these heinous crimes – rape, assault, murder – in which real people are hurt and killed know what they are doing, and do it anyway. So would it be so wrong to apply the same standards of punishment to them as we would to an adult offender? If nineteen-year-old John commits Crime A and is sentenced to five years in prison, why would sixteen-year-old Mark who commits the same Crime A go to a youth home until his eighteenth birthday?
It doesn't seem fair, does it? Well crime and punishment isn't always about fair. We really should protect our youths and give them another chance. If Crime A is simple vandalism – graffiti, broken windows, keyed-car, or the like, then I think sixteen-year-old Mark does deserve consideration under the law. Things were damaged, but nobody was hurt. If Crime A is a carjacking or any crime at knife- or gun-point then the punishment should fit the crime, not the age of the criminal.
I would even be willing to discuss a compromise: Currently the records of young offenders are sealed when they turn eighteen. What if we were to seal the records for any under-age criminal at the completion of their sentence, whether they be twenty or thirty or forty, and let them try to live a normal life, after having paid their debt to society? That way a fifteen year old gang member who is sentenced to ten years in prison can get out of prison at the age of twenty-five, with no criminal record.
I'll admit that I do not know what the answer is but I know this: what we are doing now is a joke to kids. They (not all kids you understand, only the truly bad ones) walk into school, into their local arcades not with Swiss Army knives but with handguns and are not afraid to use them because in the scheme of things there are no consequences for using them. When I got into a fight in school we went at it until one guy was down, then the two of them were hauled off to the principal's office, we both got punishments but one of us also got bragging rights.
Today these fights end with deaths, and the authorities are going to remain powerless to stop them until we as a society admit that the Youth Protection Act needs to be changed and yes, we sometimes need to have the option of punishing fourteen-year-olds very severely because until we do old ladies in parking lots are going to be attacked by fourteen-year-olds brandishing weapons who are not only not afraid to hurt but look for an excuse to do so.
There has to be a clear distinction: I was a bit of delinquent; the kids using guns and carjacking and murdering are criminals. I don't know what delinquents need, but criminals need to be punished. Thus endeth the lesson.