Public forum generates conversation on youth justice

Nearly 170 people came to hear top opinion leaders speak about young people and the law at Voices on Youth Justice, the Law Society's free public forum held on June 25.

This was the fourth forum presented by the Law Society. They offer an opportunity to engage the public in discussion and engender a wider appreciation of the legal profession's role in free democratic societies and the Law Society's role in protecting the public interest in the administration of justice.

As John Hunter, QC, President of the Law Society, told the audience in his welcoming address, the goal of the forums has been, "to bring the legal profession together with the community at large — to start a conversation about issues in the law."

Access to justice depends on all citizens understanding the rule of law. Promoting awareness of the unique challenges faced by young people embroiled in the legal system can help youth and their families to navigate the legal system and improve access to justice. 

Panel members look on as BC's Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, answers a question from the floorPanellist Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC's Representative for Children and Youth, used the opportunity to release some preliminary results from her upcoming report, which examines the relationship between youth in care and the justice system. Turpel-Lafond told the audience that her research shows, "children in care in British Columbia have had a higher probability of ending up in the corrections system — 36 percent of them — than they did of graduating from high school, which is 24 percent. I think that's probably the most staggering finding, because it's exactly not the outcome that we want for them."

The Representative emphasized that she has found that children in care who stay out of the justice system did so because they had better support. She called for stable funding for a variety of services that could help families at an early stage of children's lives and provide what Turpel-Lafond called "protective factors" to keep the children out of the justice system.

Judge Nancy Phillips used the opportunity as a panellist to, among other things, provide the audience with some insight into how judges sentence youth. Judge Phillips is responsible for the judicial administration of the Youth Court at Vancouver's Robson Square.

"It is crucial to remember that Parliament alone has the power to make the laws relating to how young people who commit crime may be sentenced," said Judge Phillips. "And a judge cannot act outside the scope of that authority and direction that is provided by the legislation.

"If I simply sentence a young person without regard to what the law directs that I do," explained Judge Phillips, "my sentence would almost inevitably be overturned by an appellate court, which would be rather counterproductive."

She also emphasized that "judges live in the community in which we work. We have families that live, work and go to school in these same communities. We are not immune to being the victims of crime and we are motivated to ensure the communities we live and work in are safe."

Panellist Gordon Cruse Panellist Gordon Cruse, a retired youth corrections officer who spent 26 years in Victoria supervising young offenders, shared with the audience his unique insight and perspective on the Reena Virk murder case. He supervised all of the teenagers who were arrested for their part in the 1997 beating death of 14-year-old Virk. He also considers the Virks family friends — the proceeds of his book, Juvie: Inside Canada's Youth Jails, go to a scholarship in Reena's name.

"The Virks have consistently impressed me with their approachability, their openness, graciousness, insight and understanding over the years," said Cruse. He explained that they have told him about "their forvgiveness of Warren Glowatski — the boy involved — because they saw a young man making every effort to change himself from the inside out while he was incarcerated."

Cruse relayed that "their wish was to allow him to move on in his life. This ultimate expression of love and understanding," in Cruse's opinion, "has in the doing relieved some of their own burden and set an exceptional standard for all of us."

Of Glowatski, Cruse said, "I recently spent some time with him. He's moved on with his life, he's working, complying with his release conditions and bears with remorse his life burden for his part in the tragedy."

The forum was put on in partnership with CBC, the Society for Children and Youth of BC, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition and the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks. The community partners helped the Law Society connect with the youth community and others — resulting in a broad spectrum of people coming to hear the panellists speak: lawyers, youth workers, social workers, youth, those involved with law enforcement and members of the general public.

The public forum project began as an initiative of the Equity and Diversity Committee in 2006 with the aim of promoting the legal profession and the rule of law in the community at large.