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In Our Words: The ins and outs of youth criminal justice

Whenever we write an article or post it online dealing with a crime and an offender who cannot be named, people get to chirping. “Name them,” the comments say.

Whenever we write an article or post it online dealing with a crime and an offender who cannot be named, people get to chirping. “Name them,” the comments say. Sometimes, it’s a person who wants to see if the arrested party is one of their friends or relatives, maybe someone their child knows. Other times, it’s just someone being a busy body. Yet other times, it’s someone who’s genuinely concerned for their safety.

Perhaps people need a refresher course in the Youth Criminal Justice Act - or as I’m going to call it for brevity’s sake, the YCJA.

The YCJA applies to offenders between the ages of 12-18 who have allegedly committed criminal offences. Different standards and legal and ethical practices are in place for young offenders compared to adults, with their age taken into consideration by a judge or jury when coming up with a sentence.

One of the most prominent ways the YCJA is encountered is through media. Part of the YCJA states that the name of any young offender – described as someone between the ages of 12-18 – cannot be released to media or by media. There are exceptions, of course. Say a 16-year-old violent offender is on the loose, being pursued by police. You can’t really allow the public to help find them if you can’t share the kids’ name or photo, so there’s an exception in the rule there.

Let’s say a 17-year-old is being tried for a serious crime as an adult. The YCJA falls away there. After all, if the court is treating someone like a grown-up, people outside should be able to as well.

These things don’t happen all that often, particularly in Flin Flon. I’ve been writing here for more than four years - I’ve seen it once.

If a prominent crime is committed by anyone, that information shouldn’t be covered up. The recent string of armed robberies and beatings in Flin Flon - in which two of the five suspects are youth offenders - is something we should all know about. We were not given the names of those offenders by any source and even if we had them, we wouldn’t (and couldn’t) print them, because that’s something different.

The YCJA is designed to strike a balance between allowing the public knowledge of an incident while protecting a perpetrator who may still be able to turn things around and live a productive life. The entire point of the YCJA is that society benefits if young people who have gone astray can find their way back - that the courts have a duty to do what they can to help the community and the most gain can be found by punishing the deed while not tarring the offender for life.

Is this to say that every young offender is willing or able to live what we’d call a normal or productive life? No. Some people, sadly, are lost causes - whether it’s their situation, how they were raised or socialized, whatever. Some people will not accept that path, but not everyone who commits a crime when they’re a kid is beyond help.

The goal of the YCJA and the youth criminal justice system isn’t just to punish - it’s to teach.

I grew up in Flin Flon. A few of my friends got into your typical young kid crimes. Some broke windows and did B&Es. Others sold weed to make a quick buck or stole beer. Nobody stabbed anyone or committed violent acts as far as I know, but there were definitely some crimes.

I’m not going to name those kids, for two reasons – first, I ain’t no snitch, and second, a lot of those ne’er-do-well young-ins, despite their youthful indiscretions, actually turned things around.

They have jobs, families, homes, love in their lives. Some have gone to further their education, finishing their high school or getting their GED, even continuing on to trade school or university.

A 15-year-old caught breaking windows is committing a criminal - by definition, they’re a criminal. We know that. With that said, a 15-year-old caught breaking windows is not irredeemable.

The YCJA means that I, as a member of the press, could report on a number of broken windows or other instances of vandalism. I could report on a 15-year-old being arrested, but that 15-year-old’s name stays out of the story.

Online and on social media, information can spread like wildfire. For that 15-year-old caught breaking windows, there’s still a pretty good chance this person could become an 18-year-old with a high school diploma, a 23-year-old with a trade or with a degree and a 27-year-old with a job or bright prospects.

Most people hiring someone for a job will Google their name or look up their social media handles. It’s a good way to figure out exactly who someone is. You can tell a lot about someone by the dumb crap they share on Facebook.

If the first thing you find when you Google your 18-year-old summer job applicant’s name is a news story from when they were a 15-year-old caught breaking windows, that doesn’t help rehabilitate. All it does is kill their chance of getting paid to paint walls or flip burgers and force them into possible future criminality. After all, we all have to eat and put roofs over our heads and if conventional employers won’t hire you, you have to find a way, legal or not.

Young people are still capable of learning things that can stick with them forever. The goal of the system is to provide a positive message for someone who may not have had that, to provide punishment to a kid while still allowing them a chance to grow, learn and live.

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