Little criminals and big fears:
Society gets tough on young offenders for the wrong reasons

June 7, 1999


  I 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 to the
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 answer.
   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 Parliament.
   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.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,