Justice Minister Anne McLellan this week introduced legislation in the House of Commons to reform the Young Offenders Act. The bill is similar to the proposed Youth Criminal Justice Act which died last fall when the election was called.
One issue that’s sure to be contentious is the question of publishing the names of young offenders.
The Canadian Alliance platform calls for publication where a youth is convicted of "a serious offence". The Liberal bill, however, stops far short of that. While liberalizing the existing rules somewhat, it would still ban the publication of offenders’ names and other identifying information in most cases. Exceptions would exist for youths subject to adult sentences, those whose crime is murder, manslaughter, attempted murder or aggravated sexual assault, or those who have committed at least three serious violent offences other than the ones I’ve just listed.
For years, the non-publication provisions of the Young Offenders Act have been a source of political controversy. In 1984, newspaper chain Southam Inc. challenged the law in court as a infringement of the right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court held that the law did indeed violate this freedom. However, the law’s purpose--the protection and rehabilitation of young people--was held to be a "social value of superordinate importance" which outweighed the right to free expression, and justified its abrogation under Section 1 of the Charter.
However, recent news reports are demonstrating—in case there’s anyone left who hadn’t personally experienced this phenomenon—that the notion of protecting young people’s identities in prominent cases is an utter farce.
Item: a Cornwall, Ontario youth faces charges of uttering death threats after reading aloud in class from a fictional story about blowing up a school. Although his name is never published, he is invited by a group of famous writers to speak at a fund-raising gala at the National Arts Centre. He receives a phone call from a renowned criminal lawyer offering pro bono legal services. Television cameras follow him around giving us shots of his backside. His teachers and classmates speak freely to the media about these events. Obviously, everybody in this boy’s social circle knows he’s the kid that all the fuss is about. Even strangers have no trouble getting his phone number, despite the Young Offenders Act.
Item: an 11-year-old girl is shot by her four-year-old brother in Tyendinaga Territory (about 50 kilometres from my home) in mid-January. The local newspapers carry length write-ups that include the names of the children, their parents, and a 14-year-old brother who (according to his mother) had been out hunting with a shotgun and left it in a closet. One neighbour tells reporters that "news of the shooting quickly spread throughout the community of 2,400." No doubt. I myself recognized the mother’s name even though I don’t live in that community. Days later, firearms charges are laid against the father and someone now referred to as "an unidentified 14-year-old." Is there anyone in that youth’s community who hasn’t guessed who he is?
Item: In Vancouver, a 13-year-old appeared in court in January after stealing a car and causing an accident which killed one person and injured two others. The Canadian Press news report said teenaged spectators in the courtroom, both friends of the victims and of the accused, "stood two abreast in the narrow space between benches, craning for a look at the slight accused." I’ll bet they all knew his name.
Item: In Berthierville, Quebec, two boys aged 15 and 16 appeared in court in January on charges of arson, mischief, and breaking and entering after an explosion and fire destroyed portions of the older boy’s high school. According to the Canadian Press report, the courtroom was "packed" with local residents, including high school students, to observe the proceedings. No doubt they knew the boys’ names.
Item: In Calgary, a 14-year-old was charged in January with 26 counts of uttering threats to cause bodily harm. Reporters obtained statements about the boy from both a family member and his fellow students. Obviously it wasn’t hard to find people in the community who knew his identity.
The theory behind the publication ban is that if a youth is officially labelled a criminal, he may accept that characterization of himself and continue or even escalate his antisocial behaviour. The opposing argument is that loss of reputation might deter a youth from further brushes with the law. In fact, each of these arguments may be true—for different youths.
However, it seems unlikely that seeing one’s name in the paper will be an important, let alone decisive, factor for most teenagers in deciding which path to take in life. A teen’s world is not all that large. If his friends, family and classmates know about his charges—as they almost invariably do, regardless of the law—then as far as he’s concerned, the whole world knows. The stigma or labelling will already have occurred.
Meanwhile, the public hasn’t got a steel-trap memory for the name of every kid who’s mentioned in the paper. Reports of dime-a-dozen minor offences committed by strangers fade into oblivion extraordinarily quickly. However, should we not have a right to know from an authoritative source, not just local gossip, if there’s a young hoodlum living two blocks over?
Give the obvious inefficacy of the Young Offenders Act at protecting the identity of accused teens, Canadians should be outraged that its flimsy promise to save young psyches is all it takes to override one of our most treasured freedoms.
- end -