Teens a growing proportion of Toronto homicides

While homicide rates in Toronto appear to be declining, the proportion of teenage victims has risen steadily since 2005.

While homicide rates in Toronto appear to be declining, the proportion of teenage victims has risen steadily since 2005.

Numbers collected by CBC News from Toronto police show the percentage of homicide victims who are aged 19 or younger has risen to 22.6 per cent in 2009 from 8.75 per cent in 2005.

The trend appears to continue this year, with seven teenagers who have died as a result of violent crimes accounting for 19 per cent of the total homicides this year to date.

Andrew Dowden, 17, is the city's most recent teen homicide victim. He was shot on July 29 and dumped into the Humber River.

Crime victim advocate Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo was among dozens of mourners at his funeral last weekend. She said she's been to too many such funerals, but was particularly struck by what the minister said during the service.

 Year Homicides Teen homicides Teen victims (%)
2005807 8.75
20067011 15.7
20078516  18.8
20087015 21.4
20096214 22.6

Source: Toronto Police Service

"The pastor asked all the young people to stand up. He said it's time to disconnect your friends — your friends with guns, your friends with gang ties," she said.

Young victims on rise since '70s

Sarah Thompson, assistant professor of criminology at Ryerson University, who has been studying Toronto homicides since the late 1980s, said the increasing proportion of young victims is part of a broader trend in the city.

"In the 1970s, about 25 per cent of homicide victims were under the age of 25. Since 1998 [to 2003] 40 per cent of victims were under the age of 25," she said. Those numbers are "a clear indication that victims of homicide in Toronto have become younger over time," she said.

That trend comes despite a drop in the amount of violent crime and the seriousness of crime in Toronto in recent years. There was a four per cent decline in the Toronto area's crime severity index in 2009 compared to 2008, according to Statistics Canada.

The Toronto Police Service provided the homicide numbers to CBC News, but it said it could not speculate about specific trends in homicide rates.

When asked to pinpoint the cause of the rising proportion of young victims, Thompson said the answer is less likely linked to a lax or ineffective justice system as it is with social, health and economic policy.

It's not surprising to see higher rates of youth homicide in recent years, she believes, given the cuts to social programs instituted in the '90s by the Harris government.

"These are, as many people would argue, the children of the so-called Common Sense Revolution," she said, referring to the political platform devised by the Ontario Conservatives in 1995.

"They were small children when these cutbacks took place. And disadvantaged families and the children of those families were the people who were the most affected by a lot of the policy decision-making that was made in that period."

Mandatory minimum sentences or harsher penalties will not solve the problem of youth homicide, she said.

Victim's mother calls for stronger sentences

But Moonie Ali, whose son Terrance was beaten to death seven years ago by three other teens, disagrees. She is calling for stronger sentences for offenders, saying Canada is "all for criminals, bottom line.

"At the end of the day you can have 10 PhDs, you can have 10 master's. But you cannot apply it in a real sense unless you're walking the walk," she said.

Ali said she had since found some solace supporting other parents who have lost children to violent crimes.

"I feel blessed to know that they feel comfortable enough to talk to me," she said. "Very few people could speak and comprehend this language."

Thompson believes some progress is being made when it comes to targeting troubled neighbourhoods in Toronto and addressing deficits in those areas.

But she said policies aimed specifically at lowering crime rates in those areas are often hastily implemented without a broader analysis.

"If you throw in a whole bunch of violence reduction, anger management, anti-gang programming and whatnot into a particular at-risk neighbourhood, I think the literature would more broadly tell you that's not the best way to go about reducing crime and violence in that neighbourhood," she said.

"I would also argue that so-called non-crime policies that are aimed at strengthening families, that are aimed at encouraging kids to go to and stay in school, post and pre-natal care for moms, parenting classes, all these sorts of public health interventions … are probably a better way to go."

With files from CBC's Kimberly Gale