What to say about Vic and the kids?
I'm all for accountability, and I'm all for learning about consequences at a young age. Caring for kids isn't the same as giving them unlimited licence to do whatever they please; in fact, caring for kids expressly calls for instilling a sense of accountability in them that prepares them for responsible adulthood. On the basis of that, you'd think I'd be in favour of Justice Minister Vic Toews' plan to allow the legal system to address crime in kids down to the age of ten. Actually, I'm leery.
Chris Selley takes a run at Toews' position in a piece today, and I find myself in agreement with much of what Chris says. What Tart Cider doesn't do, however, is acknowledge in any real way the legitimate concerns that have prompted Toews' move. Today's Calgary Herald does, though:
Several years ago, when Winnipeg was plagued with a rash of car thefts by under-12s, police expressed their frustration at their inability to deal with these kids who, when caught, brazenly told the officers they knew the law couldn't do anything to them. Police dubbed one of the repeat offenders the Tiny Terror, but they had to wait until he turned 12 before they could formally charge him. In 2005, Brian Smiley, a spokesman for the Manitoba Public Insurance Corp., said: "We hear of kids as young as nine and 10 years old getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving it."
Adults would have to be in the throes of extreme naivete to believe these kids don't understand that stealing a car is wrong. Or that the 11-year-old arrested last year in Burnaby, B.C., in connection with a series of armed muggings didn't know it's wrong to threaten people with a knife and take their money. Yet, all police could do was release the child to his family.
Those who dismiss these examples as isolated incidents have a point, although not quite the point they believe they do. It's true that you don't turn an entire justice system upside down because the Calgary Herald quotes two examples of kids not responding to the current system. But talk to a primary school teacher, and you'll find that these are simply the most extreme examples of a widely acknowedged trend that sees parental control declining as state control in schools, law enforcement, and child welfare agencies becomes increasingly toothless and ineffective. Just because too much fear is decidedly a bad thing, doesn't mean a touch of fear of authority isn't a good thing in a child - and on this front, the battle isn't running in society's favour.
Releasing a young but delinquent child to his or her family simply isn't enough these days, especially in instances where violent or repeated crimes have been committed.
But is the answer to this real issue to have the heavy-handed justice system intervene? It seems to me that Toews' biggest problem is that he sees this issue as a nail, and as Justice Minister, he thinks he's holding an awfully big hammer.
"The theory is that the child welfare system will take care of those children, but that is not the case in most provinces," [Toews] said. "In most provinces, in fact, the child welfare system is allowing criminal conduct to continue among those types of children."
This illustrates the weakness of his position. Throwing kids to the courts to prevent continuing criminal conduct can only plausibly be projected to work if the criminal justice system in this country isn't "allowing criminal conduct to continue" among adult offenders as well. And that is decidedly not the case in Canada. So why does Toews think he can fix problems for kids that his justice system can't even fix for adults?
The real answer to this problem, as with most problems involving kids, starts at home with parents. Parenting isn't an easy task, but I firmly believe it's the most important one anyone with kids faces in their life. Setting limits and enforcing them, following through with consequences to kids' actions - good and bad alike, and giving children love without giving them unlimited licence is essential.
But as you can't legislate good parenting beyond some incredibly broad strokes (your child must be fed, you must not endanger your child, etc), what is a government to do? Well, it could start with strengthening the ability of schools to reinforce good parenting instead of undermining it. Teachers' hands are tied in many respects when it comes to enforcing good behaviour in the classroom and schoolyard. I'm not talking about a return to the strap, but something more than "Johnny, that's not very nice" is needed. And yes, I do understand that changes to the country's school systems don't fall within the Justice Minister's purview.
Another thing government could do is bolster the child welfare infrastructure. Minster Toews himself admits that part of the impetus for his proposed changes stems from a perception that some kids simply slip through the cracks between child welfare and the YCJA. If the child welfare system isn't shouldering their load, the logical response would be to encourage, cajole, or force it to do so. But again, changes of that nature aren't up to Canada's Minister of Justice.
So what should Toews do? He should show some restraint. Nothing within his repertoire as the elected head of Canada's legal system is going to be useful here, and accordingly, he needs to resist the urge to 'do something.' His proposed cure will not ameliorate the situation a bit, and it may even worsen the disease.
Instead, he should advocate the changes that will lead to less people ending up in his criminal justice system at all. Advocating isn't exciting, but surely a Conservative would understand that some things are the proper responsibility of someone else.