sat in a Victoria courtroom last week as an 18-year-old was
convicted of murdering Reena Virk. With a slight build and
boyish face, Warren Glowataski looked disturbingly more like
a child than a man as he sat rigid during the judge's lengthy
decision. Only 16 at the time of the crime, he faces the possibility
of life in prison.
The murder of Ms. Virk in 1997 brought unwelcome
international attention to the otherwise tranquil city of
Victoria. The story of how she was lured to a dark area under
a bridge and, after being savagely beaten by eight teens,
was killed by Mr. Glowatski and a 15 year-old girl shocked
the country. In less civilized times, these two might have
faced death at the hands of the angry masses. Instead, their
cases were elevated to adult court, where the boy has now
been convicted; the girl will be tried in November.
These two are part of a growing number of youth
who are being tried and punished as adults. In March, the
Crown applied to have a 16-year-old boy, convicted of the
sexual assault and attempted murder of a seven-year-old, declared
a dangerous offender. In April, a B.C. Supreme Court justice
ruled that a life sentence was not a cruel and unusual punishment
for a 17-year-old convicted of beating to death an older man.
And just last week, a 17-year-old girl, with a mental age
of six, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty
stabbing death of a community home operator.
The image of young people being led away from
adult courts in handcuffs is disturbing. In a world of conflicting
values and standards, the question of whether to view them
as adults or children is both legitimate and difficult to
On the one hand, society says that those in their
early teenage years are immature. They are prevented by law
from buying cigarettes or alcohol, from driving a car, quitting
school or holding a full-time job.
But those who commit atrocious acts can very
quickly be elevated to adult status and forced to accept the
full responsibility for their actions.
In the United States, a recent series of high-profile
school killings by young boys precipitated a flurry of legislative
proposals to try 10-year-olds as adults and to apply the death
penalty to 11-year-olds. Congressman Jim Pitts, the sponsor
of one such proposal in Texas, explains: "Current juvenile
laws could not have anticipated violent crimes being committed
by children this young."
Since 1985, 12 young men have been executed for
crimes committed when they were 17. This year, for the first
time, the age of a person executed dropped to 16. "The
death penalty for juvenile offenders is an almost uniquely
American pastime," says Victor Streib, dean of law at
Ohio Northern University. Moreover, "the United States
is literally the only country in the world that has not yet
ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the
Child, in large part because of the American desire to remain
free to retain the death penalty for juvenile offenders."
In Canada, while we aren't yet confronted with the idea of
executing adolescents, we have become obsessed with youth
crime. The myth is perpetrated that the young wilfully scoff
at the law as they go about committing their crimes because
they know they won't be severely punished.
The irony in this, as Salon writer, Robyn Templeton
observes, is that the adults who now distrust the young are
the very same baby boomers who grew up, by and large, distrusting
adults. Perhaps they remember, and fear, the attitudes they
had then, and now project these sentiments on today's youth.
It is they, who despite the significant decline in youth crime
-- a 13.5-per cent drop in Criminal Code offences since 1993
-- encourage the replacement of the Young Offenders Act with
a much harsher Youth Criminal Justice Act, which is now before
I wonder, in our moral panic over juvenile violence,
whether society is in danger of casting aside the yardstick
of age and making the severity of the crime the sole determining
factor. Will we revert to times past when the law exhibited
no reluctance in exacting penalties for crimes committed by
children? As recently as 1780, children could be convicted
for any of the more than 200 crimes for which the penalty
was hanging. That year, a seven-year-old girl was hanged for
stealing a petticoat. Times past? Well, I'm not so sure.
This year, in West Palm Beach, Florida, a 15-year-old
mentally impaired boy stands charged with robbery and extortion
for stealing $2 from a classmate. Prosecutors, citing "zero
tolerance," are seeking a prison sentence of 30 years.
Violent crime is a serious matter but so too
is the sanctity of childhood. While I'm not sure where I stand
in cases such as the Virk murder, I worry about how far our
society may go.