Ottawa Citizen
Saturday 22 April 2000

Teens warned of 'problem pile'

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Most parents of teens are making a mistake if they think kids face the same challenges we did. We were taught to learn from our mistakes. Today's teens can't make mistakes.

As an example, in 1970 a 19-year-old was caught with a small amount of hashish. He thought little of it. He pleaded guilty and paid his fine. As time passed, he noticed he often had to fill out forms that asked the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? That bothered him, so he went through the process of applying for, and getting, an official pardon.

Recently he was at a U.S. border crossing point, and singled out for a random check. A border patrol officer asked him if he had a criminal record. He said no. His name and date of birth were punched into a computer. He was refused entry to the U.S., and came with whisker of losing his car. Had the border guard been in a mood to push the point, he could have seized the car on the basis the owner lied.

He was told the U.S. doesn't accept pardons. Once convicted of a criminal offence, you're a criminal. Period.

"There are differences between our two countries," says Buck Shinkman, press attache at the U.S. Embassy. "A conviction isn't expunged (by a pardon). He could enter the U.S. by applying for a waiver. That's not something you can do in the morning and enter the country in the afternoon. You have to apply and wait."

As a parent of a teen, Mr. Shinkman says he warns about the "problem pile." A teen may feel something shouldn't be against the law, or that light penalties make it look like a minor crime. But once the conviction is registered, in the computer age, it hangs around like stink on a skunk. "I tell my son there will be many forms he will have to fill out, and if convicted of anything, he will have say so in the proper box. It may not stop him from getting a job, but it will send his form to a different file. I call it the problem pile. It lowers one's chances."

Fast lane closed

Then there's the cry of outrage from a 20-year-old who has landed a good job, but won't be able to take it because the job calls for a car, and he can't afford insurance.

As a teen driver, he racked up speeding charges. He paid his fines and got his heavy foot under control before it did too much damage to his driving permit. Now he knows fines and driver demerit points were the least of his worries.

The convictions are a matter of record and available to insurers. His speeding put him into a high-risk category and a minimum insurance rate in the $2,400 range.

Getting tougher

It now appears Ontario will soon have on the books a Parental Responsibility Act. Attorney General Jim Flaherty seems unmoved by arguments it hasn't worked in other jurisdictions, and is forging ahead.

It will open the possibility of having parents held accountable for the misdeeds of youth, up to $6,000.

This is a foggy area, in that homeowner's insurance already covers that. If your dog gets into trouble and causes damage, your home policy covers it.

The same holds true for your children; but there's a glitch. Because of the Young Offenders Act, police won't identify the teen that caused the damage.

If there's one area the PRA might be welcomed, it's in private security. Many chain stores now contract security to firms that try to collect penalties from parents.

Parents of a child caught shoplifting, for example, can expect a letter from a Southern Ontario law firm that specializes in tough collection methods. Letters will say that because of the time, effort and paperwork caused the security firm, the parents are being billed between $300 and $400.

Refusal to pay will result in added courts costs and the ruination of the family credit rating, warn the letters. Many pay. Those in the know don't. Only courts can set punishment.

With a PRA in place, store security services could have a pipeline to parental pockets. Such new laws will put a bounty on kids.

Our society is being designed by chicken farmers. They raise their young trouble-free in cages on assembly lines. Send this column to your favourite teen, with a packet of Shake 'n' Bake.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. His e-mail address is dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca .

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen