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Extensive coverage of high profile violent youth crimes in the media may initially lead one to conclude that crimes committed by youths, particularly females, are increasing in number and seriousness. Public concern about youth crime is fuelled by beliefs that rates of violent youthful offending are escalating and that youth justice responses need to become harsher to deal effectively with this problem. Indeed, public perceptions of increases in youth crime, particularly violent youth crime, have fuelled three rounds of amendments to the Young Offenders Act.
There is a strong public perception that violent youth crime is rising. The most recent statistics show that violent youth crime actually decreased 4% in 1996 over 1995. However, 1996 saw the first notable decline in youth violence since the Young Of fenders Act came into effect in 1986. From 1986 to 1994, youth violence more than doubled, increasing an astounding 125%.
And yet, the overall increase in violent youth crime since 1986 needs to be put into perspective. While the portion of youth court cases involving violent offences increased between 1986/87 (13%) and 1994/95 (21%), the increase has been largely attributed to a significant increase in minor assault cases. This increase in minor assault cases has been attributed by many to society's growing intolerance for undesirable youth behaviour. For example, it is believed that there has been a significant increase in reporting to police of such incidents as minor school yard scuffles, or of any unwanted touching of one youth by another that is legal grounds for an assault charge. Some schools have instituted zero tolerance policies which require that all disruptive incidents be reported to the police rather than informally handled by the school itself. In many jurisdictions, police now automatically lay charges against youths involved in minor assaults rather than diverting young people into community alternatives. Therefore, the data does not clearly indicate that youth crime is increasing in severity or becoming a larger proportion of all crime. Rather, the way in which undesirable youth behaviour is dealt with by the police and society as a whole may have changed.
Whatever the cause of the increase in the proportion of violent youth crime, violent crime still constitutes a very small portion of crimes committed by youth. Property crime comprises almost half of all youth court cases while violent offences represent only 21% of youth court cases. Comparatively, violent offences comprise 28% of crimes committed by adult offenders. Furthermore, most violent crime is committed by adults 18-34 years of age.
Young offenders do commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime relative to their portion of the Canadian population. Young people 12 to 17 years of age comprise 8% of the Canadian population but account for 13% of those accused of violent crimes . However, adults 18 to 34 years of age commit an even more disproportionate amount of violent crime. Adults 18 to 24 years of age represent 10% of the population but account for 22% of those accused of violent crime. Adults 25 to 34 years of age comprise 17% of the population but account for 33% of those accused of violent crime.
There is also a perception that the nature of violent youth crime is increasing in brutality. There is presently no way to reliably determine whether this is in fact the case, other than to examine youth homicide rates. In terms of proportions, homicide rates are deemed to be among the most accurate indicators of crime trends. This is because the offence of murder affords little opportunity at any point in the criminal justice process for outside factors to bias a case's handling (ie., the seriousness of murder means reporting or charging rates for this crime should not change over time). National statistics show youths are responsible for approximately 47 murders each year or roughly 8% of all homicides, a proportion that has remained unchanged for at least a decade. Homicide statistics suggest that violent youth crime is not, in fact, becoming increasingly brutal.
A number of recent high profile cases of violence perpetrated by teenage girls has advanced the perception that girls in particular are becoming increasingly violent. While the number of girls being charged with criminal offences has increased, boys still account for most of the youths charged. Girls comprise only 20% of the youth court caseload. Therefore, boys are much more criminally active than girls. However, minor assault charges increased more rapidly for girls than boys from 1986-1990. Further, violent crimes actually comprise a higher proportion of crimes committed by girls than boys, about 25% versus 20% respectively. The narrowing gap between the sexes in criminal offending has been attributed to changes in child socialization and police practices. Despite these changes, the number of violent crimes committed by girls is still relatively small.
The changes in youth offending patterns over the past decade are not nearly as dramatic as the public perceives. While youth violence has increased in the past decade, much of this increase is attributed to changes in societal attitudes towards youth violence rather than an actual increase in youth violence. The discrepancies between public perceptions and statistical fact are such that Canadian society has been gravely misinformed about youth crime. Such misconceptions often lead to intolerance and punitive attitudes towards young people in general. For example, there appears to be a significant decline in community responsibility for young people. Many communities are no longer willing to address the needs of young people themselves, relying almost exclusively on the criminal justice system to address youth misbehaviour, however minor. The growing popularity of zero tolerance policies in Canadian schools is an example of this trend.
Many juvenile justice experts agree that the media are chiefly to blame for false public perceptions regarding criminal justice issues. The Canadian public is inundated with sensational youth crime stories. High profile incidents involving young people across Canada and around the world are featured in the media on an almost daily basis. Media coverage of such sensational incidents extends from the moment the crime is committed until sentencing and beyond. Such extensive media coverage of high profile youth crime, even crimes committed in the United States or Britain for example, leads the Canadian public to believe that youth crime is rampant in their own communities. Given that about 95% of the Canadian public cite the media as their primary source of criminal justice information, the media is a key place to start in correcting public misconceptions about youth crime.
Government and police responses perpetuate the myth of the seriousness of youth crime through, for example, efforts to amend the Young Offenders Act and introduce tougher sanctions for young offenders. The continuation of these beliefs can serve to frustrate attempts to educate the public and bring views in line with the official statistics. However, evidence exists that members of Canadian society can become better informed and make more enlightened decisions. This can be accomplished through, first, improved public knowledge of the criminal justice system, second, a better informed media accompanied by more accurate media reports and third, efforts to respect and address the very real fears that accompany public misconceptions about youth crime.
* References available upon request.
The September issue of The Reporter featured an article on parental liability laws. The new Manitoba Parental Responsibility Act was discussed and the article indicated Alberta's intention to introduce similar legislation. Alberta Justice has since announced its intentions to monitor the implementation of the Manitoba legislation to determine its effectiveness before any consideration is given to the introduction of such legislation in Alberta. Therefore, the Alberta Government is not currently committed to introducing parental liability legislation. This represents an opportunity to express your views on parental liability to the government before a policy decision is made.
The John Howard Society of Grande Prairie, in conjunction with the Grande Prairie Catholic and Public School Districts and Peace Wapiti School District, is pleased to offer a program which aims to re-integrate potential or recent school leavers back in to the regular school system. The program targets youths 13 to 16 years of age who have a demonstrated interest in returning to school on a full-time basis.
The re-integration coordinator works with each student to develop an individual program plan that is designed to meet their specific needs, such as academic, personal or vocational. The academic portion of the program consists of correspondence courses and tutorial assistance, primarily in math and language arts. The re-integration program provides students with a less threatening structure than the regular school system. Increased individual attention and assistance, along with a broad range of optional courses and instructional activities provide students with a more positive educational experience. The program helps students develop better work habits and assume responsibility for their academic success.
Re-integration program students are also assisted in recognizing and resolving personal development issues. The student's program plan may include social, life and coping skills development, individual and group counselling, and assistance with problem solving and decision making. Personal development sessions and workshops are an integral and significant component of the program. These include field trips, guest speakers and community partnerships.
In the 1996-97 school year, 31 students were enrolled in the re-integration program. As of June 30, 1997, 77% of the students were either in school or working.
The entire Grande Prairie community benefits from the re-integration program. The re-integration program contributes to a lower school drop out rate and decreased youth involvement in criminal activities. The re-integration program also provides opportunities for increased parental involvement and support. The community is a partner in the re-integration program and cooperates in the educational process by providing volunteer tutors and guest speakers for the personal development portion of the program. The community also contributes to the program by providing recreational and work experience opportunities to the students.
The re-integration program is funded by Grande Prairie Catholic and Public School Districts, Peace Wapiti School District, Grande Prairie United Way, private donors and Grande Prairie John Howard Society.
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The John Howard Society of Alberta "Reporter" is distributed free of charge to a wide audience of citizens, educators, agencies and justice system staff. Our goal is to provide information and commentary on timely criminal justice issues. We welcome and encourage your feedback on the "Reporter." The John Howard Society of Alberta is an agency composed of citizens in Alberta who are interested in criminal justice reform and preventing crime in our communities. We recognize that crime and its control is as much the responsibility of the community as it is of government.
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