Youth Sentencing and The Death of Officer Garrett Styles: Punishing with a Cause?

Within a few weeks, Ontario Superior Court Justice Alex Sosna will deliver his sentence in one of the most prolonged and closely watched youth offender cases in Canadian history. He will have to decide the appropriate punishment for a now 19-year-old whose actions led to the death of a York Regional Police constable over four years ago. This case has ignited strong views on what is “fitting” for the offender given the nature of the offense.

As it stands, the youth offender, S.K., is a convicted first-degree murderer but, somehow, this reality does not seem to par with other examples we have of cold, merciless teens torturing and slaughtering innocent parties (see R v MBW, 2007 ABPC 292; R v JJ, [2009] OJ No 6143 (ONSC)).

A Fateful Encounter

The facts revealed at S.K.’s trial illustrate more of an adventure with friends gone wrong rather than your prototypical maniacal youth convicted of first-degree murder. On June 28th, 2011, Constable Garrett Styles was nearly finished his 12-hour night shift. Just before 5 a.m., he was patrolling Highway 48 in East Gwillimbury (York Region) and observed a minivan speed by. Officer Styles caught up with the vehicle and initiated a traffic stop.

The minivan stopped for speeding was driven by 15-year-old S.K. who had taken his parents’ vehicle without permission or a valid driver’s license in order to drive his friends around town.

What happened next was the main point of contention at trial. The court found that while Officer Styles was standing at the driver’s side of the vehicle and interacting with the driver, S.K. intentionally put the vehicle into motion and proceeded down the highway. At that moment, Officer Styles was taken up by the moving vehicle and dragged 300 meters. The van finally came to a rest after crashing and landing on top of the officer.

Officer Styles was alive throughout the whole ordeal and was able to radio in for help and inquire about the wellbeing of the occupants of the vehicle. The officer’s crushing internal injuries were grave. Upon arrival at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Officer Styles was pronounced dead.

The Aftermath

While Canadian courts have certainly dealt with high profile cases of youth offenders convicted of murder, none have compared to the unique set of facts involved in this trial. The most salient fact is that the teen killed a police officer in the course of his duty and, after finding intent, this automatically elevated his crime to first-degree murder.

Also, unlike many youths convicted of serious crimes, S.K. had no youth record and was a smart, well-adjusted grade 10 high school student. Moreover, S.K. suffered serious consequences of his own because his injuries from the crash relegated him quadriplegic.

Nonetheless, upon weighing the evidence, the jury found S.K. guilty as charged.

Today, we have moved past the point of debating whether a first-degree murder conviction was appropriate in the circumstance to how we should apply justice in holding S.K. accountable. Herein lies the dilemma facing Justice Sosna.

Goals of Punishment

The criminological and legal literature describes four main goals of punishment as centering on retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, or rehabilitation. The first is the retributive or “eye for an eye” goal of punishment that seeks to punish for the sole purpose of avenging the harm caused by the offender. Second, incapacitation is the goal of punishing using incarceration as a way of simply keeping an offender away from the public and thwarting the possibility of reoffending.

The third and loftier goal of punishment is rehabilitation, which seeks to punish in such a way as to create real change in the offender so that they turn away from a life of crime. Finally, deterrence can easily be confused with rehabilitation but is distinct in an important respect. Deterrence is not necessarily concerned with creating genuine change in the offender but rather changing the calculus used by the offender in deciding whether or not to commit an act. Of course, the ultimate hope is that they would choose not to offend if a punishment can generate the perception that the disadvantages of crime outweigh the benefits.

Proper Application?

The Crown has decided not to seek an adult sentence for S.K. but instead to seek a youth sentence. This decision on its own provides important direction, at least philosophically, toward how S.K.’s punishment should be conceived. For a youth convicted of first-degree murder, the maximum sentence they can receive is 10 years where no more than 6 years can be in closed custody. The Youth Criminal Justice Act, SC 2002 c 1 [YCJA] emphasizes rehabilitation as a goal of punishment for youth offenders.

The question is: How do we properly apply rehabilitative values into sentencing S.K.? What exactly are we trying to rehabilitate in this offender? As previously noted, he made a bad choice that resulted in the death of a police officer. However, S.K. did not have a background that would suggest serious criminality or a need to be “rehabilitated.” If anything, the past four years since the incident have given him ample time to consider his fateful choices and how to resolve problems in a more mature manner. Does rehabilitation, therefore, provide a meaningful framework for his punishment?

What about deterrence? Can we truly say deterrence is the goal of punishment in a situation where we know the offender is physically incapable of reoffending? A recent report shared that S.K.’s injuries require extensive care and, as a quadriplegic, he is confined to a wheelchair. For example, he must be turned every three hours at night so as not to develop sores and related infections and must have assistance for his daily 3-hour routine to get ready in the morning (e.g., bathing, brushing teeth, etc.).

On the other hand, deterrence can be conceptualized as either specific or general in form. That is, specific as geared toward the individual and general as geared toward the wider public. It could be said that punishing S.K., although having a limited specific deterrence effect could have a broader general deterrent effect in using him as an example for others that might consider making similar choices. However, given the very unique circumstances of the case, how much of a general deterrent impact could his sentence truly have on the public?

The same logic can be applied to our understanding of incapacitation. Is this young man really a threat to society such that he must be kept away from the public?

None of these three goals of punishment fit the complex scenario in question and so we are left to face retribution as being the only plausible explanation underlying a custodial sentence for S.K. Is there anything wrong with using retribution as a main punishment goal for youth? Wouldn’t this approach seriously compromise the articulated values of the YCJA? Does it matter? Goals of punishment aside, should our focus just frankly be on the fact that a police officer is dead and the person that caused his death needs to serve time behind bars?

It seems that most Westernized legal systems pride themselves on the promulgation of a “humane” justice system where we seek to do more than just punish for punishment’s sake (i.e., retributive justice). This is perhaps why even though it is clear that retribution may be the most palpable explanation available for a sentence in this case, it is difficult for us to admit it. We want to feel as if we are doing something greater than merely seeking revenge even if in reality we are not.

So what goals will inform Justice Sosna as he pines over the loss of a husband, father, son, and dedicated public servant and the radically altered life of a paralyzed teen responsible for the tragedy? More importantly, how will he translate those goals into a concrete sentencing decision?

Although answers to these questions will become clearer when the sentence is rendered on November 16, the broader challenge of constructing sentences that reflect justice principles remains. This is especially the case for young offenders where our statutes commit us to applying rehabilitative norms.

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