The  recent sordid case of the murder of teenager Stefanie Rengel by a boy acting at the behest of his young girlfriend illustrates the hardening of the criminal law as it applies to young persons.

Until 1984 persons under the age of majority – as stipulated by each province – were subject to the Juvenile Delinquents Act enacted in 1908, which was based on a paternal approach under which  young persons who committed crimes were considered more as social misfits requiring primarily treatment and guidance as opposed to punishment. Only the most serious offences were eligible for the application of the harsher sentences available under the Criminal Code, and this only after a cumbersome legal procedure requesting  the transfer of the case to adult court.

In 1984 the law was replaced by the Young Offenders Act which, as its name implies, shifted the focus of the law toward the punishment of young perpetrators as opposed to treating them as deviants. Minors who committed crimes were held responsible for their actions more like adults, with allowance being made for their youth. Penalties under the Act were increased but the procedure required to have the young offender subject to treatment as an adult was retained.

The current Youth Criminal Justice Act moves another step toward adult treatment by using the word ‘criminal’ in its title and by further increasing applicable sentences. Most importantly, minors can now be subjected to the stiffer sentences applicable to adults without a separate procedure in Superior Court. In fact the Act provides that certain offences are presumptively subject to adult sentences and it is the Youth Court which makes the determination.

The effect of this progression of the law is illustrated by the Rengel case: within a relatively short time after the offence, following a streamlined procedure, a girl who was still a few days shy of her 16th birthday when the offence was committed was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Some will take comfort in the fact that the law does provide for more lenient  parole eligibility: the offender can apply for early release after seven years, as opposed to twenty five – with the possibility of a reduction to fifteen by a jury – for an adult. They might also question in principle  the wisdom of treating a person less than sixteen years old as an adult.