CM . . . . Volume XX Number 28 . . . . March 21, 2014
The central issue explored in Youth and the Law is how a court makes such decisions. We will find that, like most laws intended to carry forward important public policy, those relating to young offenders significantly depend upon the courts to give such policy meaning in specific applications. Public policy has not varied for decades: protect and guide the young - and, at the same time, protect society. How is a court to interpret this policy in legal decisions? After all, isn't the only real meaning of the law how it is applied in specific cases?
Prior to 1984, young people between the ages of 12 and 18 who engaged in criminal activity were commonly referred to as "juvenile delinquents"; after 1984, with the passage of Canada's Young Offenders Act, they were officially known as "young offenders". In 2003, the Young Offenders Act was replaced with the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), which was subsequently amended in 2012, in order to address such issues as "the overuse of the courts and incarceration in less serious cases, disparity and unfairness in sentencing, a lack of effective reintegration of young people released from custody, and the need to better take into account the interests of victims." (The Youth Criminal Justice Act Summary and Background, www.justice.gc.ca)
Canada is a nation of law, and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982, as part of Canada's Constitution, is the supreme law of the nation and serves to "inhibit government action that limits the rights of minority groups." (p. 11) In Canada (as in the United States), the final arbiter of judicial proceedings is the Supreme Court, a body of nine experienced and talented lawyers, which decides on specific cases presented to them. Deciding these cases often takes years; once the Court has decided, their written opinion may indicate unanimous assent, or individual justices may dissent, either in part or entirely. But it is those written opinions, made through careful examination and interpretation of specific cases, within the context of statute law and the Charter, which become the law of the land. As the above pull quote indicates, the focus of Youth and the Law, authored by Daniel J. Baum, is to examine recent Supreme Court rulings on specific criminal cases involving young offenders. Baum's credentials are impressive: he is the author of 19 books dealing with legal and public policy issues, and he brings more than forty years of experience as a professor of law to his analysis and exploration of youth and Canadian law. The Charter, the Canadian Criminal Code, and the YCJA all come into play within the context of a Supreme Court ruling, and Baum does an admirable job of providing the content of the Supreme Justices' rulings, as applicable to the specific case(s) under discussion in each chapter. And, as Baum points out in the book's "Acknowledgements", the Supreme Justices are to be lauded for the clarity of their writing, despite the complex legal issues each case offers.
Each of the book's five chapter focuses on a subject likely to be of interest to young adults: physical punishment (spanking, hitting, and similar actions by an adult against a younger person), youth violence, bullying, searching of a person or of his/her belongings (e.g. the use of sniffer dogs to search for drugs in school lockers or backpacks), and the role of the police in offering appropriate and sufficient warnings to youth when they have been detained or arrested. In each chapter, Baum poses a series of questions about the subject, provides the details of a relevant case which was ruled upon by the Supreme Court, offers the reader the chance to consider and rule upon a hypothetical case ("You Be the Judge"), poses "Challenge Questions" which further explore that chapter's central issue, and ends with a listing of "References and Further Reading", drawn from current media such as Globe & Mail, academic and law journals, as well as a variety of position papers and monographs. The book concludes with an "Appendix", providing Section 146 of The Youth Criminal Justice Act, as well as a thorough Index of the book's contents.
The book certainly provides plenty of material to engage the reader in critical thinking, but the content of the legal issues makes for challenging reading. Most readers (whether young adults or teachers of high school law classes) are not likely to share Baum's familiarity with the nuances of the Charter, the Criminal Code, or the Youth Criminal Justice Act (all three documents are available on the Government of Canada's Justice web site), which is crucial to understanding how the Supreme Justices arrived at their decisions in the context of these three key documents. Despite the book jacket's claim that Youth and the Law is written "in plain language intended for readers of all ages", the book's objective tone and sophisticated content make it less-than-approachable reading for students younger than the age of 17 or 18, The "You Be the Judge" cases provide interesting talking points for classes in high school law; however, teachers must be prepared to do considerable background work in order for students to undertake much analysis of the hypothetical cases. Youth and the Law is the first book in a series entitled "Understanding Canadian Law"; perhaps the next volume in the series will be more accessible to a high school audience. Youth and the Law is a possible acquisition for libraries in schools offering Canadian Law courses in grades 11 or 12, and it's worth considering as a supplemental resource for teachers of those courses. However, read it through carefully to determine if it will really work with your students.
Recommended with reservations.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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