It is rare that a day goes by without a story on violent youth crime appearing on the television news or in the printed media. Headlines often tell of school shootings, gang violence, home invasions and other serious crimes committed by youths. In recent months, the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, and the copycat crimes in Taber, Alberta, and Atlanta, Georgia, have been the focus of a great deal of media attention. Many Canadians, exposed to such coverage, would argue that the justice system needs to get tough with young offenders in order to forestall a serious youth crime epidemic. The treatment of young offenders, according to this line of thinking, is not sufficiently punitive to deter young people from committing random and senseless acts of violence.
In contrast, many academics who have studied youth crime and the response of the youth justice system would counter that youth crime has not risen significantly and that youths are, in fact, held accountable for their criminal behaviour. The dramatic rise in youth crime reported by the media is not reflective of an actual trend in youth crime. In fact, youth crime peaked in 1991, and has been slowly dropping since (Solicitor General of Canada, 1998). Furthermore, the available court and corrections data show that youths are treated as punitively as adults, if not more so. There is little proof that youths are given an easy ride by the justice process.
A comparison of the treatment of youths and adults by the justice system is, at best, difficult. One difficulty is that the youth system, unlike the adult system, does not have parole; youths, in most cases, must spend the entire length of their sentence in jail. We can only speculate at the actual time-served of adults and youths. We can, however, compare the average custodial sentence length applied to both adults and youths, keeping in mind that young people spend a greater portion of their sentence in custody. Another difficulty with such a comparison lies in the different types of custody available for adults and youths. Adults are incarcerated in facilities with various levels of security. Minimum security institutions allow for much more freedom of movement than do maximum security facilities. Youths are placed in either open or closed custodial facilities which do not have specific security level designations. There is no consensus as to what constitutes an open facility. In some provinces, they are like group homes, in others, they are in the same building as secure facilities. Similarly, the definition of secure custody varies from province to province. As a consequence, a comparison of the treatment of adult and young offenders while incarcerated - in terms of freedom of movement, programming, privileges, etc. - is complicated and beyond the scope of our analysis.
In this paper, we will compare data from the adult and youth courts and correctional systems in an attempt to answer the question, Are youths treated more leniently than adults by the justice system? Specifically, we will compare the proportion of youths and adults found guilty and sentenced to custody, the average length of custody and average rates of incarceration of adults and youths. We will also consider the impact of the YOA on the rise in use of custodial dispositions for youths. The roles of deterrence, denunciation and child-welfare concerns in judicial decision making will also be examined in this regard. Finally, we will assess the potential impact of the new Youth Criminal Justice Act on the use of incarceration for young offenders.
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