Persecuting and prosecuting children
TWO separate but equally devastating crimes that have captured the attention of Winnipeggers recently point to what a paradoxical pursuit justice can be in the case of children. In one case, we have a man whose sexual urges are reviled by society, who is judged by the masses as a monster and who, if the common man had his way, likely would be castrated or worse.
Liberal as Canadian society is in matters of sexual preference, we draw the line at children. We do so because we don't believe kids have gained the knowledge to appreciate the value of their sexuality and are in general far more susceptible to manipulation by adults who would abuse their trust. We believe that an adult has an obligation to respect the innocence of the young and to know the boundaries, liberal as they are in Canada, in which "consensual sex" is legally considered consensual.
Society, however, does not afford children who commission motor vehicles for the purpose of joyriding the same measure of innocence. Indeed, when a child -- who is perhaps just old enough to consent to sex -- steals a car, he is no longer a child, but a "youth" and as such is subject to the all disapproval and blood lust an enraged citizenry places on its most hated criminals.
Tragic results, such as the death of a cyclist at the hands of a chronic joyrider, seem to further mobilize public support and government musings on the redrafting of laws, intended to protect youth, to reflect a desire for punishment in the name of public safety. Only by strong deterrence and proper detention -- so the theory goes -- can we hope to end the madness that has threatened our property and our lives.
There is little discussion about the lost innocence of the perpetrators of these crimes. We have no tolerance for those who would know right and do wrong, and not much interest in why they would choose wrong over and over again. Apparently, to most it is simply a matter that bad behaviour that goes unpunished will not be amended. But I see a substantial amount of hypocrisy in our desire to protect one group of children from harm on the one hand, while seeking punishment for another group of children on the other. Are not all children equally worthy of our protection? Is it not the indifference and callousness that we as a community have showered on these persecuted children and their families that has caused them to act as they do?
A typical young car thief in Winnipeg is most often the product of an impoverished environment. He is the possessor a stolen childhood lived out on the mean streets of our city, in neighbourhoods most people do not live in or visit unless they are forced to. What his crimes indicate above all is the failure on the part of our society to shield its most vulnerable citizens from the harsh realities that come as a consequence of poverty and an interminable cycle of despair.
In 1989, the House of Commons promised to "seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000." Today, we are no closer to closing the gap, providing this city's unfortunates an opportunity to engage in activities and a lifestyle that most would find preferable to stealing cars and living as a pariah.
My guess is that few thieves, even the most chronic among them, would wish to be feared and reviled if other forms of respect were available to them. If they could find a sport, or an artistic outlet or a hobby that could bring pride to themselves, their families and their neighbourhoods would they feel the need to inflict hurt on society over and over again?
We must take greater pains to understand how our indifference is paid back in crimes of property and violence, rather than insisting that more severe punishments will restore order to the streets (which they most certainly will not). Only then will we be closer to finding the answer to what to do about these spectacular crimes -- which seem to be the only indication of the epidemic of poverty and despair in this city that better-off citizens pay much attention to these days.