Most nations have special laws for young people. However, this has not always been the case.
For a long time, there was only one criminal legal system. Youth and adults alike could be jailed, whipped, or even killed for breaking the law. Around 600AD, the Romans decided that children under the age of 7 should not be punished as criminals. By the 1700s, children under 13 were generally viewed as incapable of appreciating the nature and consequences of their conduct. During the 1800s, reformers began to develop a separate juvenile court and legal system. The philosophy of these reforms was an emphasis on rehabilitation. It was believed that saving young people from a life of crime was an important objective for society.
In Canada, our understandings of law and society have also evolved. Thus, the Canadian criminal justice system has changed over time.
In 1908, the Juvenile Delinquents Act (JDA) marked the creation of Canada’s separate juvenile justice system. The JDA:
In 1984, the Young Offenders Act (YOA) replaced the JDA. Partially due to public demands for a stronger response to youth crime, the YOA:
The YOA was criticized for a number of reasons. It was said that it did not do enough to prevent youth-at-risk from entering a life of crime. As well, some argued that its sentencing options were inadequate to deal with and provide long-term rehabilitation for the most serious violent youth.
Criticism was also levelled because of the over-use of jail sentences for non-violent young offenders who could be better served through community-based approaches that emphasized responsibility and accountability.
In 2003, the government responded to the perceived weaknesses of the YOA by replacing it with the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). Referring to values such as accountability, respect, responsibility, and fairness, the YCJA’s preamble explained the law’s rationale, and stated that:
The YCJA included principles to provide clear direction to those dealing with youth in conflict with the law; emphasized out-of-court and non-custodial options for non-violent youth; and focused on reintegration and rehabilitation. At the same time, the YCJA provided custody options for youth who committed more serious offences.
In 2012 the government passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, an Act that made important changes to the YCJA. The changes were designed to help ensure that youth who commit violent or repeat offences are held fully accountable.
Broadly speaking, the YCJA’s general principles were amended and now highlight the protection of the public as a key goal of the youth justice system. The principles of the Act now state that the youth justice system is intended to protect the public by:
At the same time, the amendments also emphasize that the youth justice system must be based on the principle of diminished responsibility of young persons.
Additional amendments, dealing primarily with youth who commit violent and repeat offences, were also incorporated.
Today, claims such as “youth crime is on the rise” and “youth crime is out of control” seem common in coffee shops and online message boards. There is one problem with such broad statements. They are not true.
The most recent data from Statistics Canada revealed that in 2013, the overall volume of youth crime declined by 16% from the previous year. This included drops in homicides, serious assaults, motor-vehicle thefts, and break-ins. This recent decline in youth crime is consistent with longer-term trends. In fact, Statistics Canada data reveals that crime has been in steady decline for well over 20 years.
In 1991 nearly 9,500 crimes were recorded per 100,000 youth in Canada, a peak in recent history. When the Youth Criminal Justice Act became law in 2003, there were nearly 7,500 crimes per 100,000 youth. By 2013, the number of crimes per 100,000 youth fell to just under 4,500. This is a 40% decline since the YCJA was enacted.
While many factors contribute to Canada’s falling crime rates, the implementation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act may offer a partial explanation for Canada’s falling youth crime rate.
Young people are dealt with differently than adults in criminal law. Children under the age of 12 cannot be arrested or charged with a crime. Once youth reach the age of 12, they are dealt with in a separate youth justice system. While the same criminal laws apply to youth 12 and over, the administration of justice is carried out under the provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Once youth reach the age of 18 they are subject to the adult criminal justice system.
Some of the arguments used to justify 18 as the age where individuals are subjected to the “full” adult system of criminal responsibility include:
In addition to these reasons, it is also important to note that the Youth Criminal Justice Act requires the Crown to consider seeking an adult sentence when a youth 14 or older is charged with a serious violent offence. The YCJA also allows a court to hand down an adult sentence when certain requirements are met. When a youth receives an adult sentence, they will serve the sentence in a youth facility until they turn 18, and possibly beyond. This means that despite 18 being the age of “full” responsibility, the law is flexible for exceptional circumstances.
For the administration of justice for children under the age of 12, the Department of Justice has suggested that “the small number of children under the age of criminal responsibility who exhibit serious behaviour problems can be dealt with more effectively by parents and the community without involving the state. When a more formal approach is required, child welfare or mental health systems are the preferred approach. These systems have access to a wide array of services that are more age-appropriate, family-oriented and therapeutic than those available through the criminal justice system.”