3 min

Tempting vengeance

Would the Conservative crime bill's young offender changes be so bad?

That the Conservative crime bill is a strategically ideological move to realign Canadian laws with the Harper regime’s rigid moral code, while scoring cheap points with the tough-on-crime crowd, should come as no surprise.

What I find surprising is my own willingness to consider its proposed realignment on young offenders.

Amid amendments introducing mandatory jail time for neighbourhood pot dealers with more than five plants; harsher penalties for indecent acts in public places and other “sex offences;” tougher eligibility criteria for pardons (which, if actually granted, will no longer be called pardons but “record suspensions”); and more victim (and thus vengeance)-focused punishments, a clear picture emerges of a justice system driven more by the desire to punish criminals than to rehabilitate them, let alone reintegrate them, into society.

Which raises the question: what kind of society do we want to live in? A harshly punitive one governed by authoritarian morals whose transgression triggers unforgiving consequences? Or a compassionate society that, ideally, seeks to understand and address the underlying causes of crime and punish wrongdoers while teaching them better social skills and giving them a second chance to use them?

For years I’ve believed the better approach, and the more successful policy, is a compassionate one. And I still do.

Except when it comes to the two youth who killed Aaron Webster.

The youth that I will never be able to publicly name because, despite targeting and killing a gay man in Stanley Park in 2001, their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The youth who served only two years in a youth detention facility, while Webster’s adult killer, only a few years their senior, served double that time behind bars.

When I think of those youth I find it hard to oppose the crime bill’s new punish first, rehabilitate second direction for young offenders.

So does Tim Chisholm.

Chisholm, who held his best friend as he died, brutally beaten, in the park that night, also thinks Webster’s killers got off too easy.

He too thinks the names of all Webster’s convicted killers should have been made public.

Softer sentences should be reserved for youth who steal chocolate bars, he says. Not for youth who deliberately beat a man to death with baseball bats and pool cues.

Jim Deva isn’t so sure.

“I really wish the three young men well,” the Little Sister’s co-owner says of Webster’s killers. “I hope they become productive, caring people.”

“I don’t want to destroy their lives. I don’t think that’s helpful,” he says. “I just don’t want them to do it again. To throw them in a cage is not the solution. To find out why they did what they did, and to change them so they become loving, caring people — that’s the solution.”

The best time to set people on a better course is when they’re still young and in their formative years, one teacher recently told me. That’s when they need the intervention most, and that’s when they’re most receptive to changing direction.

Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman agrees. Youth lack maturity and should not be held to the same level of responsibility as adults, she says. “I see [young people] manifest in one moment great maturity and insight, and then don’t-get-it behaviour. That’s the hallmark of youth: you’re on the cusp of adult responsibility.”

Youth lack the perspective of experience, Weissman says. “And we do have to make a space for that, both legally and morally.”

Which brings us back to the question of what kind of society we want to live in. A society like the US, where Larry King’s 14-year-old killer and classmate will now spend the next 21 years of his life behind bars? Or a society that is more compassionate and, in theory, more interested in valuing and redeeming everyone’s life, including those of us who make mistakes or, worse yet, contravene someone else’s strict moral code.

Vengeance can be appealing, especially in those cases we take personally. But should it really form the basis of public policy? The Conservatives obviously think so. My best self disagrees, only a little reluctantly.