The justice system in Canada serves the youths in the society through the provision of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), which directs the way it should treat the young people involved in the criminal activities. The film Sleepers offers an exemplary point of reference for various forms of criminal activities that may find a place in the current justice system and may be considered under the YCJA. The criminal-justice system in this movie is hopeless, whereas the gangster-priest-drug-dealer system is always fair and honest. This essay conducts an examination of various aspects of the movie storyline and their reference to the contemporary justice system.
YCJA and the Criminal Code of Canada
The criminal code of Canada gives provisions of addressing various forms of criminal conducts within the law. Largely, the code directs on how to address adult offenders and youths who tried and sentenced based on their offenses. According to the code, other youths, not fit to be adults should be subjected to the YCJA, which clearly outlines the modes of action in case of any crimes relating to the youths. In the case of Sleepers, various criminal contexts can be referenced to evaluate the intensity of criminal behavior under the contemporary YCJA. The Act defines youths as individuals who are older than 12 years, yet younger than 18 years (Endres, 2004). In retrospect, adults are above 18-years-of-age, while children are less than 12 years. The YCJA thus attends to those bracketed by the lower and upper limits as defined. In the movie, the main characters are youths, who are 13 and 14-years-of-age. They, therefore, fall within the YCJA category at the time of criminal activity.
According to the Criminal Code of Canada, young people can only be accorded sentences within adult courts based on two conditions. The first condition is that their culpability in the criminal behavior is rebutted. Secondly, it has to be confirmed that subjecting them to the youth sentence would not suffice in holding them accountable for their actions. The first condition fits those who are mentally or psychologically unstable, while the second condition mostly aligns with hardened criminals (Criminal Code of Canada, 1867). As such, repeat offenders are less likely to yield to the less demanding youth justice systems and require strict justice conditions. In the movie, the youths, at the time of the first offense, are neither hardened criminals nor unstable of mind. Therefore, it can be deduced that they do not fit within the adult justice system, making them more relevant to the youth criminal justice system. In the latter crimes, however, the application of other factors beyond the past criminal records should be considered prior to making a sentence in the case.
Applying the YCJA to the case of the children brings about concerns in relation to the sentences administered to youths. In a code prepared by the Province of Alberta (2014), the YCJA is clarified with reference to the legislations of the province. Some of the issues addressed include the issuance of sentences to the youth offenders under the YCJA. In the report, all youths tried under the YCJA can be placed in youth custody depending on the seriousness of the crimes committed. Endres (2004) asserts that the YCJA is structured in a way that most criminal activities committed by youths are punishable through less strict procedures. For instance, Endres argues that most of the crimes are to be addressed through extra-judicial measures of law. Such measures are considered appropriate for youths who have committed less serious offenses and those whose offenses may not have been repetitive. In such instances, the offenses could be considered acts of mischief such as those committed by the youths in Sleepers. The first offense associated is that of mischief which results in endangering the life of another. Secondly, the youths are also liable for mischief under $5,000 for taking and damaging the hot-dog vendors cart and for stealing hot dogs under $5,000. Although their intention was initially to play a prank, the sentence given in the movie does not warrant the same. In the movie, the children are subjected to a youth custody facility where they are abused and raped. This is not a requisite of the YCJA, which clearly states that extra-judicial measures can be taken against such crimes which are not considered serious. Endres describes some of the extra-judicial measures include warnings, police caution, and a reference to another community for community service activities. In the report by Endres, these measures are appropriate for youths who have committed no serious offense.
The Act goes further to describe serious offenses, including murder, attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault, and manslaughter. It is only when the youth commits the crimes that they are supposed to be subjected to confinement in youth facilities. As such, the present-day YCJA could not have taken similar measures in bringing about rehabilitation for the youths. For the multiple crimes, however, the most probable sentence would be subjected to the community service. This also comes with demands on its application. In the report by the Province of Alberta, youths should only be committed to custody or community service punishments. The latter should be confirmed suitable for behavioral modification; it should not interfere with the normal school hours of the youths and have to be approved by the provincial criminal administration (Province of Alberta, 2014). That said; it is inevitable that the youths were initially wrongfully sentenced to months in confinement, especially where their stay would interfere with their school activities. The rationale behind the determination of whether a serious crime has been committed lies in the definition of serious crimes. According to the YCJA, serious crimes include the aforementioned four offenses which can result in custody and a supervision order. Moreover, Campbell (2005) highlights the requirement that the youth can only be said to have committed a serious offense under the act if the offense includes an attempt at causing serious bodily harm. Campbell also mentions that under such circumstances the courts recommended intensive rehabilitative supervision and custody. Considering that the children were taken to the court and subjected to custody under supervision imply that the judgment was misplaced in the movie. The YCJA does not allow youths who commit other crime to be subjected to such sentences, especially at facilities in which they are not comfortable and where their pleas are not heard. The objective of the Act was to improve rehabilitative justice rather than punitive principles among the youth offenders. This, however, does not prevent offenders from changing if the supervision given at the facility is a basis for change. In the movie, the contrary has been true since the abuse and rape only helped to create bitter and manipulative individuals.
Restorative Justice Practices
Contrary to the provisions of the YCJA, the restorative justice principles that had been in use previously were more suitable to the youth offenders. Those with zero criminal records should be considered more under the restorative justice regime as this provides a better opportunity for rehabilitation and restoration. The Canadian Resource Center for Victims of Crime (CRCVC) (2011) describes various principles of restorative justice as applied in the law. Restorative justice in this regard is aimed at ensuring that the victim and the perpetrator reintegrate into the society successfully. This must, however, be achieved within the confines of rationality and law. According to the CRCVC’s report, the first key principle in administering restorative justice is the provision of an opportunity for encounter between the victim and the offenders. In the case of Shakes, Tommy, Michael and John, such an opportunity would have enabled them trying to apologize for their mistakes and making promises where necessary. The restorative justice system gives the perpetrators the opportunity to help prevent the escalation of the case to the courts where possible.
Secondly, restorative justice is built on the pillar of amends. Following the provision of the opportunity, the offenders, having apologized to the victim and subsequently made promises to change, must make efforts to repair the harm caused. This could be achieved, for instance, by agreeing with their parents to cater for the treatment needs of the victims and/or to repair the hot dog stand in case of damages. The youths would also pay for the stolen hot dogs to help alleviate the need for a court case. The progression of this second stage would, however, depend on the success of the first principle of action in restorative justice. The CRCVC further asserts that the objective of reintegrating both offender and victim into the society successfully. Both parties have to be restored fully into the society as contributing members. The only way to achieve this would be through avoiding some sentences such as custody. In the movie, this was not achieved as committing the youths in custody would not make them available for community participation. On the other hand, extra-judicial measures could have done this better. By issuing warnings and/or committing youths to community service, they would be taken in as useful members of the society.
The movie does not mention anywhere where the parents of the youngsters were included in the resolution of the criminal case against them. This would be considered untenable under the restorative justice system. The fourth principle as outlined by the resource center is that of inclusion. This is described as involving all the parties with stakes in the crime. For instance, the youths’ parents have stakes in the crime and could have been included under restorative justice. The processes of amends would especially need them to cater for the destruction caused by the children’s mischief. Through this way, parents would not only help their children gain their freedom but would also make the victims gain greater confidence in the system.
The CRCVC (2011) provides more details on the practice of restorative justice. Besides considering and effectively applying the aforementioned principles of restorative justice, the CRCVC recognizes the description of a crime as a violation of one person by another. In this regard, a crime can only be said to have been committed where there is a victim. In the case of the youths, this is an inevitable conclusion since the youths violated the rights of the hot dog vendor through mischief and theft. This thus makes an appropriate premise for the administration of restorative justice to the two. The victim needs to be addressed, as does the offender. Moreover, the justice principle recognizes that crime poses harm to personal relationships. In the movie, the youths are under the care of a priest who constantly cautions them against criminal activity. The realization that the same youths he directs are involved in crime could harm the relationship between the custodian and the youths. Furthermore, those hurt by criminal activity are bound to feel a certain amount of disdain towards the offenders. The implication of this in the restorative justice system is that although the main aim is bringing together the offender and the victim and restoring them in the society, it may be difficult to convince the victim of the need to participate in the process because of the harm caused.
The operations of the restorative justice system also focus on problem-solving. This means that apart from the followed procedures, restitution and reconciliation become essential parts of the problem-solving process. Various ways must, therefore, be obtained to ensure that the community is involved in the restitution of the situation. The community in this regard would involve those with stakes in the crime. In the movie, this could have been accomplished by organizing a coming together of the victim and the offenders, clearly outlining the problems presented, including the damages that have to be compensated and the needs of the offender. It would be conducted such that all the parties involved come out satisfied with the manner in which justice is administered. On the contrary, the hopeless criminal-justice system in the movie places the youths under custody in spite of their denial and without giving them an opportunity to interact with the victim. This method addressed only the criminal aspect of the event through punishment without considering the possibility of rehabilitation or restitution. As such, the approach was not as holistic as that involved in the restorative justice system whose objective is to rehabilitate and restitute.
The restorative justice system is considered holistic since the process of amends and restitution digs into the underlying issues in relation to criminal behavior. In this way, the youths could have been guided on how to modify their behaviors through positively impacting relationships. The time wasted under custody could have been eliminated.
According to a study conducted by Soto (2007), it was determined that individuals involved in different levels of drug-related criminal activity were associated with certain psycho-social behaviors. The divergence in behaviors was eminent through the differences in the drug-use tendencies displayed by those incarcerated. Soto argues that psycho-social factors and the previous criminal behaviors contributed extensively to the probability of criminal tendency among individuals. The YCJA mentions that factors such as age, maturity, and character are some of the information that has to be collected in relation to criminal activity. This helps in profiling the criminals and realizing the potential of the suspected criminal in committing crimes. The Province of Alberta (2014) describes factors such as the plans that a criminal develops for change and the level of control that the parents have over the youths as part of the determinants of criminal behaviors. From these descriptions, it is evident that the YCJA admits that there are certain tendencies making the youth more culpable for criminal behaviors. In the movie, the impacts of the associations between the youths and King Benny, the local gangster, make them potentially culpable for criminal activity. This explains why even after their stay in custody, Tommy and John still become career criminals.
The level of influence exerted by the parents comes into play not only through the biological parents of the youths but also through the interactions they have with older people. For instance, the abuse faced at the hands of the custodians at the youth facility could easily turn the youths against any form of law enforcement and subsequently increase their potential to engage in crime. In essence, the criminogenic behaviors could have contributed to the first and the latter crimes committed by the youths albeit in different ways.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act and the criminal code of Canada both give directions on tackling crimes among youths. The movie gives perfect scenarios that can describe the link between the two codes. However, an evaluation of restorative justice systems vis-à-vis the YCJA makes the latter more appealing regarding its ability to rehabilitate rather than to punish. Moreover, the crimes committed by the youngsters are not serious and thus befitting either of extrajudicial measures in the YCJA or of restorative justice.
Campbell, K. (2005). Understanding youth justice in Canada. Pearson Education Canada, 182–183
Criminal Code of Canada. Criminal code, 1892, SC 1892, c.29. Retrieved fromhttps://www.sascwr.org/files/www/resources_pdfs/legal/CRIMINAL_CODE_OF_CANADA.pdf
Canadian Resource Center for Victims of Crime (CRCVC). (2011). Restorative justice in Canada: What victims should know. Accessed from https://crcvc.ca/docs/restjust.pdf
Endres, K. (2004). The youth criminal justice act: The new face of Canada’s youth criminal justice system. Family Court Review, 42 (3), 526–539.
Levinson, B. (Dir.) Sleepers movie. Warner Bros, 1996.
Province of Alberta. (2014). Youth justice act: Revised statutes of Alberta 2000. Alberta Queen’s Printer. Retrieved from https://www.qp.alberta.ca/documents/Acts/Y01.pdf
Soto, R.D. (2007). Criminogenic personality and behavioral characteristics in substance abusers: An examination of the lifestyle model of substance abuse. ETD collection for University of Nebraska – Lincoln.