The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) was enacted as a federal statute in 2003. It covers the system for youth who have committed crimes. It replaced the Young Offenders Act (YOA) - an act that was becoming increasingly outdated, and whose measures were found to be inefficient in rehabilitating youth.
I want my answer to cover four parts: rationale - why the act was created, and the advantages over the existing Young Offenders Act, - police interaction - how officers of the peace are guided to handle youth in public, - trial procedure - how trials are conducted differently and the way they are handled within the justice system, - as well as sentencing and extrajudicial measures - how youth found guilty of crimes are sentenced differently than adults.
The YCJA was enacted in 2003, and replace the YOA that had been in place before it. The act was created to reform the youth justice system, amid many concerns that the system was outdated, and not efficient. These concerns included the high rate of arrest, use of courts, and incarceration in less serious cases, as well as the lack of a developed system to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth back into society.
Therefore, the YCJA was introduced to provide a system where an efficient youth justice system could be used. It includes both a Preamble and a Declaration of Principle that outlines its goals and objectives that the act hoped to accomplish, as well as provide information on how the legislation was created. Together, the Preamble and Declaration of Principle are quite long, but the following points help capture the essence:
- That youth have rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and international conventions such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- That youth need to be held accountable for crimes, but that it also must be recognized that they have less mental capacity, but also be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society;
- That parents, communities, victims and our society all have a role and interest in preventing youth crime, ensuring accountability of youth, and integrating youth into society;
- That consequences for youth crimes should be proportional and fair to the seriousness of the offence and that consequences should reinforce societal values and be meaningful to the youth
Under the YCJA, the police and the Crown also act differently when dealing with youth. When dealing with a youth, arrests aren’t as prominent. In most cases, police officers issue informal warnings, or formal police cautions. They may also refer the youth to community programs or agencies. If a case is referred to the Crown by police, the Crown may decide to issue a Crown caution. As a last resort, the police and the Crown may impose extrajudicial sanctions. These sanctions are only used if the youth admits responsibility (but such an admission is not a plea), and a discussion on the type of sanction is made. Sanctions can only be used when a young person can’t be dealt with through a warning, caution or a referral. These measures are all taken before laying a charge: charges are normally only made in serious offences or after these actions have proved ineffective.
Interactions with police are also designed to be simpler and more straightforward. Upon interaction, police are supposed to notify youth of their rights in a way that they understand, and an involvement with parents are common as well.
Youth Justice Committees are groups that help administer the YCJA. Under §18, a committee may provide advice on determining an extrajudicial measure used on a young person, support victims by facilitating the reconciliation of the victim and young person, ensure that community support is available, as well as other capabilities.
Trials of youth are conducted in a different manner than of adults. When a youth is charged, the trial shall take place in a designated youth court. The youth court also has exclusive jurisdiction to offences committed by youth unless the offence was found in the Contraventions Act or the National Defence Act. A trial is conducted in a youth court if it is found that the youth accused of committing a crime did so before the age of eighteen.
The arraignment at a trial is also different from that in an adult criminal matter. Before allowing the youth to enter a plea, the court must be satisfied of the following:
- That the youth has a right to counsel (if the youth already does not have counsel present)
- Ensure that the young person understand the details and implications of the charge laid
- Explain the plea options
- Explain the process of applying a youth sentence
When communicating to a youth, it is vital that the youth understands. Under section §146 of the YCJA, an officer must explain the youth’s rights in an appropriate language for them to understand. This includes the right to counsel and the right to have a parent present.
Some processes at trial may change depending on the charge laid. For example, a youth can only be fingerprinted and photographed when charged with an indictable offence. Such records are destroyed upon acquittal, or when the youth turns eighteen years of age.
All youth are entitled to privacy and bans on publication on any personally identifying information. While the public and the media are allowed to attend youth trials, and can publish any evidence or trial information, they are not allowed to publish the names of those accused or any victims in an attempt to assist in the rehabilitation of youth. Publishing information is a criminal offence punishable through summary conviction. The publication ban can only be lifted when the young offender is accused or convicted of a presumptive offence, - murder, manslaughter or aggravated sexual assault - receives an adult sentence, if identifying information is necessary for the capture of a young offender, or if the young offender requests their name to be published - which in itself is subject to court discretion.
Prior to the introduction of the YCJA, Canada had some of the highest rates of incarceration of youth in the world. Sentences were often not proportional to the severity of the offences, and custodial sentences were often used to address the psychological and social needs of youth. In some cases, the youth sentence was more intrusive from what an adult would’ve received in the same circumstances.
The YCJA also has a list of sentencing principles and purposes for courts to use when formulating a sentence. §38(1) makes note of the purpose of sentencing:
38 (1) The purpose of sentencing under section 42 (youth sentences) is to hold a young person accountable for an offence through the imposition of just sanctions that have meaningful consequences for the young person and that promote his or her rehabilitation and reintegration into society, thereby contributing to the long-term protection of the public.
Sentencing youth depends on a number of factors. There are a couple things to note.
In special circumstances, a youth may receive an adult sentence. The Crown may submit an application to the court for a youth to be liable to an adult sentence. However, the following conditions apply (but are in no way limited to the following conditions):
- The person must be found guilty of an offence where an adult would be liable to imprisonment for two years
- The youth must be of age: while the age to receive an adult sentence varies by age, it is always within the range of fourteen to sixteen years (as per §64(1.2) of the YCJA). As an example, in British Columbia, the age where a youth can receive an adult sentence is fourteen years, whereas in Quebec, it is sixteen years.
- The youth and the youth court must be given notice of the intention to seek an adult sentence
For serious violent offences, - first and second degree murder, manslaughter, and aggravated sexual assault - the Crown is obligated to consider seeking an adult sentence. The Crown must also disclose their intention to pursue an adult sentence, whether or not one is pursued, and the reasons for doing so.
Prior to 2008, youth found guilty of serious violent offences had the onus of convincing the court whether a youth sentence was more appropriate. The Supreme Court of Canada (in R. v. D.B.)struck down these provisions of the YCJA as unconstitutional: they stated that the default being an adult sentence was inconsistent with the principles of fundamental justice outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also found that youth should be entitled to diminished moral blameworthiness.
A youth court may only impose a sentence if it is satisfied that a youth sentence would not work to rehabilitate, reintegrate, and hold the youth accountable. It must also find that the youth does not have diminished moral blameworthiness or culpability.
Youth sentences are flexible, and often take many forms. When a youth court imposes a youth sentence, it must promote accountability and rehabilitation. Youth sentences must not be more severe than what an adult would receive, be proportionate to the seriousness and severity of the offence, and be most likely to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth back into society while also promoting a sense of responsibility and acknowledgement of the offence committed.
It is crucial to note that any component of the sentence to be imposed must be in relation to the offence. Imposing measures not related to the offence were often common prior to the YCJA; these measures often sought to care for other issues outside of the judicial realm, such as mental health issues, or where physiological needs weren’t being met. This was especially common with the YOA: sentences were often used to resolve and bring focus to these needs, and weren’t actually focusing on the offence.
As part of youth sentencing principles found in §38(2) and 38(3) of the YCJA, a sentence must be the least restrictive out of all sentences that can achieve the purpose of sentencing in §38(1). It should also be most likely to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth back into society, and promote responsibility in the youth, while also acknowledging the harm done to victims and the community. It may also denounce unlawful conduct, and seek to deter and discourage the young person from further committing offences in the future.
When a youth court determines a sentence, it should consider any aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the offence, the level of participation by the youth in the offence, any harm and reparation done to victims or the community, and any time spent in detention as a result of the offence.
As one of the goals of the YCJA was to discourage, and make minimum the usage of incarceration and custodial sentences, alternatives to these measures are often used. When custodial sentences are imposed, it must be shown that the youth has committed a violent offence (not a serious violent offence, but any offence where the youth attempted or threatened to inflict bodily harm), or that the young person has previously failed to comply with non-custodial sentences, or that the person had committed a serious indictable offence. There are also exceptional cases, where the aggravating circumstances of the offence where imposing a different sentence would be inconsistent with the purpose and principles of youth sentencing.
When imposing a custodial sentence, youth never spend time in a federal or provincial adult facility, while under the age of eighteen. Instead, they spend time in a dedicated youth facility. When they reach eighteen, they may be transferred to an adult facility. The court must also clearly explain the reason why any other sentences would be inappropriate.
Most youth sentences come in the form of an extrajudicial measure. They may be as simple as a reprimand (or basically a lecture - this is often used when the overall court experience is enough to hold the youth accountable), to community service, to supervision orders, to restitution. These sentences are often individualized in order to be most meaningful for the youth. There are more than 15 examples of sentences listed in §42 of the YCJA.
Further Reading and Resources