The Hill: Harper’s plan for young criminals

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s attempt to punish teenage criminals with more jail time is back before the House of Commons again.

It’s his old youth-crime bill that never passed but has been tweaked a little to make it acceptable in Quebec, where they don’t like jailing youngsters.

There’s a new cabinet member to carry the ball: Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, who speaks French. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson doesn’t.

The spin is less hypocritical. There is no longer a pretence that jailing young people is crime prevention. Now the government says it plainly - it’s time to make youth responsible for their actions. Bigger crimes equal longer time.

Paradis even came up with a new label for the Conservative crime agenda in a Radio-Canada interview last week: “la société juste.” It’s a familiar phrase we’ve heard from someone else.

They’ve got a new poster boy for the law in Sébastien Lacasse, a 19-year-old Quebecker who was murdered at a house party by a teenager later sentenced as an adult. The bill will be called “la Loi Sébastien” in his honour and likely play a big role in the next federal election.

Harper also found an adult victim-hero to help out with his legislation. He’s Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, founder of the Murdered or Missing Persons’ Families Association  after his daughter Julie was murdered in 2002.

Boisvenu is well known and highly respected, a sort of Priscilla de Villiers of Quebec. Harper appointed Boisvenu a Conservative senator last month, and he should play a big political role in the Harper youth-crime campaign in Quebec.

Harper’s crackdown resonates with Canada’s aging boomer population worried about young criminals attacking them. But this time, there’ll be no more adult-jail time for teenagers.

Former justice minister Vic Toews’ plan to jail 10-year-olds is long gone. Harper learned from that experience. He’s more careful now, more tactical, and less openly ideological.

It was the Bloc Québécois that forced Harper to back down on his last try at jailing teenagers in adult prisons. They called it “feeding fresh meat to penitentiary pedophiles.”

There’s one thing about the Bloquistes that makes them so different from the Liberals. The Bloquistes always give as good as they get from Uncle Steve.

They have already announced they will fight Harper’s legislation all the way to the Supreme Court if they have to.

But there is a big demand from Harper’s Reform-Alliance base for a government crackdown on young people who commit serious crimes.

It boils down to Harper weighing losses in Quebec against the consequences from his base. If he plays it well, he can keep both. But he could lose both ways.

Part of the legislation involves allowing the media to publish the names of teenagers convicted of serious crimes. The government makes no pretence that this plan to stigmatize young people as criminals will make it easier for them to get on with their lives after serving their sentences.

The thinking behind it is to embarrass their parents when they see their children’s names in the newspapers. The hope is that this fear of public shaming will lead parents to take a bigger role in their children’s lives.

As for young criminals, most of them couldn’t care less if their names appear in the newspapers. In some cases, the notoriety, especially if it is gang-related, appeals to them. But it’s different for the parents.

It doesn’t take a career in law to figure out this one is headed for the Supreme Court unless the government puts shaming into the Criminal Code as a proper punishment for judges to hand out.

In the end, if Harper, Toews, and Nicholson get their way under the new legislation, a 16-year-old sentenced as an adult to a life sentence of 25 years in prison for first-degree murder will serve his first three years in a youth facility.

Then at age 19, the youth graduates to an adult penitentiary to serve another 22 years before leaving jail at 41 years of age as a productive and upstanding member of society - all with help from the tooth fairy.

Right now, convicts usually get out of jail after a third or two-thirds of their sentence unless they have been completely intolerable behind bars. The thinking is that as long as they’ve got something to work towards, such as getting out early, it could lead them to better behaviour.

Harper, Toews, and Nicholson, however, have a bill coming to ensure there will be no more fooling around with mandatory early parole. But that’s another bit of legislation, and there’s no guarantee it will pass through Parliament before the next election.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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