Youth Offenders

An Overview of Youth Criminal Justice in Canada

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
young person spraypainting graffiti in industrial building, representing youth offenders

Modern society tends to be more understanding to those who commit crimes when they are under the age of 18 as compared to adult offenders. There is a general desire to direct youth away from the criminal justice system; in fact, youth under the age of 12 are not considered criminally responsible in Canada. That said, penalties can still be significant. For instance, certain youth who commit crimes from the ages of 14 to 17 may still be tried as adults, depending on the circumstances.

It was not always this way, however. This blog post explores the evolution of youth criminal justice in Canada through the lens of legislation aimed at young offenders.

Youth criminality in Canada prior to legal reforms

Before the establishment of legislation pertaining specifically to children, there were a handful of provisions in the Criminal Code which addressed youth specifically. Prior to 1908, children under the age of 7 could not be convicted of a crime. For those between the ages of 7 and 13, they could be charged if they could be proven to fully comprehend the severity of their actions. A few years prior to the first change in youth criminal law, children were finally separated from adult offenders during arrest, confinement, trial and imprisonment.

Juvenile Delinquent’s Act of 1908

The first piece of legislation to address youth crime was the Juvenile Delinquent’s Act of 1908. The purpose of the law was to improve how the federal government handled young offenders. It created a new procedure to handle these offenders in which the federal government would assume control over them.

Section 38 of the legislation read:

“This Act shall be liberally construed to the end that its purpose may be carried out, namely, that the care and custody and discipline of a juvenile delinquent shall approximate as nearly as may be that which should be given by its parents, and that as far as practicable every juvenile delinquent shall be treated, not as criminal, but as a misdirected and misguided child, and one needing aid, encouragement, help and assistance.”

The new law was typically applied to youth between the ages of 12 to 16, although it could still be applied to youth as young as 7 years old. The foundation of the new legislation was the principle parens patriae, which refers to the state’s authority to protect the interests of the vulnerable almost like a substitute parental figure.

Young Offenders Act of 1984

The Juvenile Delinquent’s Act had to be revised through the years to address the various problems that arose with its carrying out. Poverty and gender issues stood out the most, with wealthier children evading persecution and gender stereotypes resulting in the criminality of young girls without the same application to young boys. Youth also rarely had legal representation and sentences ranged greatly from harsh to lenient.

In response to the pitfalls of the Juvenile Delinquent’s Act, the Young Offenders Act came into force in 1984, repealing its predecessor legislation. It was intended to provide a more humane response to offences committed by young people aged 12 to 17. The Young Offenders Act contained several key provisions:

  • The age of criminal responsibility was raised from 7 to 12;
  • Rather than being automatically incarcerated, children were placed under community supervision in the first instance;
  • There was a greater emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation;
  • Parents of young offenders were allowed to be involved in decisions about their child’s welfare; and
  • Sentences for serious offences could include incarceration as well as probation or community service orders.

However, this legislation too was not without criticism. Some felt that the maximum three-year detention sentence for youths was not harsh enough, especially for youth convicted of serious offences like murder or sexual assault. Eventually, provisions were added to allow youth aged 16 and up to be tried as adults, although that was criticized as well for being too harsh.

Youth Criminal Justice Act of 2003

The Youth Criminal Justice Act was created in 2003 to replace the Young Offenders Act and it remains the law today. It provides for the protection of society and the rehabilitation of young persons by requiring courts to consider alternatives to custody. This includes probation orders, community service orders, intensive support and supervision orders, open custody and secure custody.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act sets out the law for the detention, release and supervision of young persons. It protects young persons from abuse while in care or detention and it aims to prevent crime by addressing risk factors at an early stage.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act has been credited with the decrease in youth being held in custody. Between 2003 to 2004, the number of youth in custody decreased by 43 percent, and it would decrease another 37 percent over the next two years after that.

Statistics crimes of children in Canada

There were roughly 54,300 youth who were accused of committing a criminal offence in 2020. The most common offences that Canadian youth committed in that year were assault, mischief and administrative offences like breaking probation or failing to appear in court. However, the youth crime rate has been steadily declining over the past two decades.

For parents, it can be devastating when their child is charged with a criminal offence. Thankfully, the law in Canada has developed to recognize that youth are still finding their way and need guidance more than anything.

Contact the Criminal Lawyers at Barrison Law in Oshawa if Your Child Has Been Charged with a Criminal Offence

If you are a youth that has been charged with a crime or are the parent of a young person that has been charged with a crime, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Barrison Law online or at 905-404-1947 (or Toll-free at 1-888-680-1947).  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our client’s rights.