Youth Criminal Justice

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) came into force on April 1st, 2003.  In 2012 the Government of Canada passed the Safe Street and Communities Act which made changes to a number of laws, including the YCJA.  The YCJA changes came into effect on October 23rd, 2012 and are designed to strengthen how the youth justice system handles violent and repeat offenders.

This fact sheet provides an overview of these changes.

YCJA General Principles

The YCJA is intended to address problems with youth in the justice system by including:

  • Clear principles on how to deal with offences committed by young persons;
  • Over-reliance on custody as a response to youth crime;
  • Over-use of courts for minor cases that could be better dealt with outside the court; and
  • Insufficient recognition of the concerns and interests of victims.

The youth criminal justice system is meant to protect the public by:

  • holding young people responsible for crimes they commit
  • promoting their rehabilitation and reintegration into society and
  • supporting the prevention of crime by looking at the underlying reasons for the criminal behaviour. 

The Act also focuses on the basic principle that youth are less mature and should be treated differently than adults.

Pre-Trial Detention

In Canada every person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Usually a youth charged with a crime will not be held in custody prior to the trial or sentence.  Youth charged with a serious offence or who have a history of outstanding criminal charges or findings of guilt can be ordered to be held in custody by the youth justice court judge where certain conditions exist. 

Additional Sentencing Principles and Custody Criteria

The purpose of youth sentences is to hold young persons accountable through just sanctions that ensure meaningful consequences for the young person and which will promote rehabilitation and reintegration into society.  Sentencing principles and custody criteria have been broadened to make sure that violent or repeat offenders receive sentences that take into account the serious nature of the crime and the degree of responsibility of the youth.

Generally, youth sentences must be the least restrictive alternative which is the most likely to rehabilitate and reintegrate the young person while also ensuring that the youth take responsibility for the offence.  Youth sentences must not be greater than what an adult would receive for the same offence. While a young person can no longer be transferred to an adult court under Canada’s youth justice system, a youth court can impose an adult sentence in appropriate circumstances.

Specific Deterrence and Denunciation

The YCJA’s sentencing principles have been amended. New factors that may form part of the court’s objective when sentencing a young person are to

  • denounce unlawful conduct (denunciation); and
  • deter the young person being sentenced from committing further offences (specific deterrence). 

The principles of specific deterrence and denunciation are, however, subject to the principle that the sentence must always be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the young person’s role in the offence.

“Violent Offence”

“Violent offence” was not previously defined in the YCJA, but was defined by the Supreme Court of Canada to mean an offence in which the young person causes, attempts to cause or threatens to cause bodily harm.  The YCJA now defines the term “violent offence” and has expanded the meaning to include criminal behaviour that could endanger the life or safety of another person by creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm.

“Serious Offence”

The definition of serious offence was also added to the YCJA. A serious offence is one for which an adult could receive a maximum punishment of 5 years or more.  Young persons who are charged with serious offences may now be detained in custody before trial if the judge decides that it is necessary in the circumstances.

Pattern of Criminal Activity

Under the YCJA the court can now take into account “extrajudicial sanctions” as well as “findings of guilt” when deciding whether the young person is eligible for a custody sentence under the legislation.  In other words, the court can look at a young person’s entire history and see if there is a pattern of criminal activity, not just past findings of guilt.

Adult Sentences

The Crown prosecutor is now required to consider if an adult sentence would be appropriate for youth over the age of 14 that have been charged with a serious violent offence.   If the Crown chooses not to make an application for an adult sentence, he or she must tell the court at the beginning of the process.
In addition, the Crown has the responsibility for satisfying the court that an adult sentence should be imposed.

Publication Ban Changes

The general rule under the YCJA is that it is illegal to publish the identity of a young person involved in crime, subject to certain exceptions (for instance, the identity of a youth can be published if they are given an adult sentence).  The recent changes now give judges discretion to lift a publication ban if a young person is given a youth sentence for a violent offence.  The judge can also decide to lift the publication ban if the judge considers the youth is a risk to the public.

Police Record Keeping Changes

Police are now required to keep records of any extrajudicial measures used to deal with a young person so that patterns of re-offending can be identified. Access to such information is limited to certain purposes. These are outline in the Act. One such purpose is to allow police to make a decision whether to again use extrajudicial measures do deal with a particular young person. 

Custody Placement Provision Changes

Youth who are under the age of 18, regardless of whether they are given an adult sentence, will not serve their sentence in an adult prison or penitentiary. Previously, young persons under the age of 18 who were given an adult sentence could in some cases serve time in an adult facility.


Where Can I get more Information?

Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia

www.facebook.com/LegalSeagull  twitter.com/LegalInfoNS

LISNS Legal Information Line and lawyer Referral Service
(902) 455-3135         Toll Free in NS: 1-800-665-9779


Youth Criminal Justice Explained

Youth Ombudsman
Toll Free: 1-888-839-6884

Nova Scotia Legal Aid Youth and Duty Counsel
(902) 420-7800

Victim Services
(902) 424-3309         Toll Free: 1-888-470-0773

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