National Post

Tuesday, March 09, 1999

Blaming the bystander

National Post

Are child criminals responsible for their actions? Yes and no, says the Youth Criminal Justice Act, to be tabled in Parliament on Thursday. The act lowers the age, from 16 to 14, at which children may be tried as adults for such crimes as aggravated sexual assault. Yet it also makes parents liable for up to two years in prison if their children re-offend.

Will punishing parents for their children's recidivism reduce crime? It is doubtful. Why not blame the child's probation officer for a re-offence? Or the local cop? Courts are often told a juvenile criminal is outside parental control, and these adults presumably have some responsibility to monitor his behaviour.

Even if throwing parents behind bars were to reduce juvenile crime, it would undermine individual responsibility, undergirding the entire criminal law. Moral scapegoating has become disturbingly familiar within the legal system. It is now legally acceptable to sue tobacco firms for the health choices of private citizens or to fault a tavern owner for his patron's drunkenness. The technical term for such laws is injustice.

Public health advocates should not turn tort law into a random regime of accident compensation, and conservatives should avoid making the criminal law a manifesto for parenting. There are other ways of reducing juvenile crime .

Penalize parents for poorly supervising their children. Penalize youth offenders for not fulfilling their parole conditions -- the greatest risk factor for a repeat offence. And hold the social work and probation bureaucracies to high standards, before their charges offend again.

If we want to prevent miscreant children from becoming criminals, we should respect and punish their free choice. After all, Cain and Abel had the same parents.

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