Juvenile Justice Systems

On 7 July 1982, Parliament enacted the Young Offenders Act (effective April 1984, some sections not until 1985), which the government claimed would bring about a long-overdue reform of Canada's juvenile justice system.

Juvenile Justice Systems

On 7 July 1982, Parliament enacted the Young Offenders Act (effective April 1984, some sections not until 1985), which the government claimed would bring about a long-overdue reform of Canada's juvenile justice system. This Act replaced the 74-year-old Juvenile Deliquents Act, under which juveniles who contravened any federal, provincial or municipal laws were tried, convicted and sentenced. The system that evolved under that Act had permitted many injustices - eg, different age limits for juveniles from province to province, informal court proceedings, the criminalizing of young persons for acts and behaviour that were not illegal for adults, the subjecting of young offenders to indeterminate sentences that were not always related to the seriousness of the offence, and an arbitrary review process whereby the young offenders could be brought back to court at any time until they reached the age of 21 to have new sentences imposed.

The Main Theme of the Young Offenders Act is that, although young people should be held responsible for their behaviour, they nevertheless have special needs which require special efforts at rehabilitation. At the same time, they should have the same right as adults to fair and equal treatment before the law.

Under the Canadian Constitution, CRIMINAL LAW is a federal jurisdiction, so this Act applies to persons between the ages of 12 and 17 inclusive who commit crimes and other offences that are defined in federal statutes. Persons under the age of 12 cannot be convicted of such offences, and those 18 and over who commit such offences must answer for them in adult court.

Rights and Privileges

Generally a young person charged with committing an offence under this Act has the same rights and privileges as an adult who is charged with a crime, including the right to bail, to a hearing conducted according to the rules of evidence, to a lawyer, to a determinate sentence and to appeal. In addition, there are special safeguards for young persons charged under this Act; eg, offences are tried by a special Youth Court; notice of a young person being charged, arrested and detained is to be given to his or her parent(s); a young person, if detained in custody, is to be kept apart from adult prisoners; information which may identify young persons who are involved in Youth Court proceedings (as an accused, a witness or a victim) may not be published; the court may exclude persons from the courtroom; and access to a young offender's record is restricted.

Dispositions or sentences to be are related to the needs and circumstances of young offenders. Where young persons are found guilty of an offence, the court may impose a variety of dispositions or sentences. These include an absolute discharge; a fine (not exceeding $1000) and an order to pay compensation to the victim (in kind or by way of personal service); an order to perform community services; the placement of a young offender on probation for up to 2 years (or, in the case of certain serious offences, up to 3 years); and the placement of a young offender in custody for a period of up to 2 years or, for certain serious offences, up to 3 years and 5 years.

Custody Provisions

Custody of a young offender may be open, which allows the option of sending the youth to a residential centre, group home, child-care institution or wilderness camp in provinces that have them; or it may be secure; ie, the young offender is sent to a correctional centre. An offender may only be sentenced to secure custody under certain circumstances related to the seriousness of the offence and to the offender's age and previous criminal record, and in cases where secure custody is considered necessary by the court for the protection of society and having regard to the offender's needs and circumstances. During the course of a disposition or sentence, it may be reviewed by the court (or by a review board, appointed by the province) and varied, if it is deemed necessary, because of changed circumstances of the offender or of the services available to him.

Where a young person 14 years of age or over is charged with certain serious offences, he or she may be ordered to stand trial in adult court, depending on the interests of society and the young person's needs, having regard to the offence, the person's age, maturity, character and background, and the availability of treatment or correctional services.

Provincial Responsibilities

The provinces, through provincially appointed officials, are responsible for providing care and supervision of persons dealt with under this Act. Youth workers prepare the predisposition reports for the court, supervise young offenders on probation, and assist young offenders in complying with their sentences. Provincial directors have certain authority to release young offenders from custody temporarily for medical, compassionate or humane reasons, for rehabilitative purposes, or to allow them to attend school or obtain employment. The provincial director may, under certain circumstances, transfer offenders from secure custody to open custody. The Act permits a province to set up "alternative measures" whereby, instead of answering in court for an offence, young offenders accept responsibility for it and agree to make compensation to the victim or to participate in a program of community service, education or rehabilitation.

Because the Young Offenders Act only applies to offences against federal statutes, the completion of the reform required that each province enact similar legislation governing the treatment of young offenders against provincial laws. By 1986 most provinces, though critical of the Act, had taken some action, either passing new Acts or modifying old ones. Most of the special safeguards contained in the federal Act were incorporated, but differences remain in the manner with which young offenders are dealt with in each province. There is a varying degree of commitment to the "alternative measures" program: most provinces have them, but they vary sharply in quality and effectiveness. Provincial courts have tended to be conservative and legalistic in their interpretation of the law, and contrary to expectation the number of young offenders in detention has increased. Amendments have been made and some of the criticisms muted, but the Act remains controversial.