-by Niamh Harraher, Staff Lawyer and Jeffrey Rosekat, Chair of JFCY Board of Directors
The prevailing wind of federal government policy and much media discourse seems focused on presenting youth as dangerous, out of control and in need of a highly punitive justice system. David Bruser’s series on the kids of 311 Jarvis Street which ran over four days in the Toronto Star (Oct. 28-31) seems to have been blown by this wind. The articles painted a grim picture of a decaying courthouse and a system that is failing the public woefully. The portrayal was one-sided, but the sentiments expressed will undoubtedly resonate with many whose only experience with the youth criminal justice system is what they read in the newspapers. Those of us who work in the youth criminal justice system know there is a different story that needs to be told.
Mr. Bruser sat in 311 Jarvis Court for four months and during his time there saw some terrible cases of serious criminal misconduct by young people. He saw cases involving appalling violence; youth who have shown utter contempt for their fellow human beings through their actions. We learned some of the facts of those terrible cases through his articles and he reminded us that young people need to be held accountable in a meaningful way for what they have done. Serious crimes should invite serious consequences. The public needs to be kept safe.
But are those cases really representative of the vast goings on at that Court? The simple answer is that they are not. Mr. Bruser gave us his opinion on some of the things he saw during the four months he observed some of the workings of 311 Jarvis. The articles did not tell us about the far less serious crimes which represent the majority of crimes prosecuted at 311 Jarvis and the consequences to those young people involved. He did not talk about the programs that are offered often with great success to rehabilitate young offenders. He does not talk about the judges’ expertise in dealing with young people.
As any parent of a teenager can tell you, young people can be sullen and disrespectful. They do things they are supposed to and they sometimes lie. In this respect they are not unlike many adults. They are different, however, in the way they make decisions, assess risk and weigh consequences. Teenagers–almost all teenagers–make some unwise choices. Choices that if exposed to the full glare of the law could have easily resulted in criminal sanctions. Whether those choices involve, underage consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs, taking a car without permission, or getting into a fight most teenagers engage in unlawful behaviour. Few adults can truthfully say they escaped their teenage years without breaking the law in some way.
The youthful marijuana smokers or shoplifters barely get a mention in Mr. Bruser’s series. Mr. Bruser did not mention the shoplifter who writes a letter of apology to the store, completes an anti-theft program and has his charges withdrawn or the school yard brawler who sits across from the person she punched in the face in a restorative justice circle. These stories do not make for sensational headlines or melodramatic stories in the same way as committing a rape, dealing crack cocaine, or being involved in a gang might. But they are great stories all the same, and are stories that need to be told.
These are the stories of 311 Jarvis which should be told, because they are by far the majority of the youth who walk through the door. According to the federal government’s own statistics, over 71% of young people charged with criminal offences in 2009 were charged with property-related or other non-violent offences. These youth of 311 Jarvis frequently stand in front of Justices of the Peace on their first appearance with their heads bowed. They are ashamed and scared. If they giggle it is not out of defiance but from nervousness. Their families are upset, their lives are disrupted by court appearances and bail conditions. A young person who gets into a fist fight at school and is charged with assault is not allowed to return to that same school until the case is over because of the standard bail conditions. Before the Court even gets to them they have had their day-to-day lives completely changed. Many of the youth of 311 Jarvis want nothing more than to put their youthful transgressions behind them and move on. And large numbers of them do.
The majority of young people who have contact with Canada’s youth courts are one-time offenders, according to a study jointly conducted by the University of Waterloo and the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics at Statistics Canada. The study traced the criminal “careers” of 59,000 young people released in 2005. The study found that the majority of these young people were referred to court on only one occasion, shattering the notion that most youth who come into contact with courts become chronic offenders.
One thing Mr. Bruser did get right is that, more often than not, the kids of 311 Jarvis come from communities that are racialized, poor and have a large police presence. They are therefore much more likely to come into contact with the police and to get caught when they offend. The kids of 311 Jarvis are not, for the most part, the kids of Forest Hill, Rosedale, Lawrence Park, Leaside or the Annex. These kids and the crimes they commit reflect the growing economic inequality of our city. Once in a while one will see a young person from the “right side of the tracks” at 311 Jarvis–dressed in a suit and with a lawyer paid for by their parents–but this is not the norm. Children of affluence are simply not policed in the same manner, and they therefore do not end up in conflict with the law in the same way as their poorer and more heavily policed peers.
Whether we like it or not, the time when a young person comes into conflict with the law, whether for a serious or less serious crime, gives us an opportunity to make sure that this is the one and only time in their lives that it happens. The alternative, advocated by Mr. Bruser, is simply to lock them up and throw away the key, write them off and forget about them. This is a very expensive and largely ineffective solution. With the rarest of exceptions, youth placed into custodial sentences will one day be back in the ranks of society with the only difference being that they are now hardened by the time they spent in custody.
Mr. Bruser’s articles also missed the fact that young people, even the ones who have transgressed in fairly significant ways, can be and are often rehabilitated with the right type of response. For instance, the story of a seventeen year old who repeatedly stole from his employer. Upon being charged with theft he was kicked out of his parents’ home and slept on his friend’s couch for a year. Between the time he was charged and the time he received his sentence he changed his life entirely. He got two new jobs, got himself into drug counselling regarding marijuana, volunteered twice a week at the hospital, maintained good attendance at school and got involved in extracurricular activities. He pleaded guilty on the basis of a joint submission between the Crown and his defense lawyer and received a conditional discharge which included terms that he continue along the path he had laid, and required that he pay restitution. A year later, he has his own apartment, is working and is about to start college.
In short, it is not uncommon for people to offend in their youth and never do it again as an adult. Many kids change. They grow up, and they learn from their mistakes.
Indisputably, some of the kids of 311 Jarvis are dangerous, embedded in a life of crime and well on their way to the adult penitentiary. Attempts to rehabilitate them are failing. These are the kids we hear about all the time. These are the kids that make great sensational stories for the media, and these are the kids that feed public outrage.
The judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers at 311 Jarvis work very hard to make sure that kids who make mistakes both understand the serious nature of those mistakes, and get a chance to make amends and change their lives for the better. And while the culture of fear will always prefer the sensational minority to the boring minority, the fact is that 311 Jarvis and Canada’s youth criminal justice system, while undoubtedly imperfect, does work.