The argument that youth courts are not ‘soft’ on young offenders is well supported by statistical data provided by the Youth Court Survey (YCS) and the Adult Criminal Court Survey (ACCS). These surveys were created to provide statistical information concerning the number of cases, court appearances, criminal charges and case outcomes for youths and adults charged with a Criminal Code or other federal offence (CCJS, 1998d, 1997e). These data are useful in the analysis of general trends in the imposition of custody for adults and young offenders and the types of offences for which adults and juveniles are charged. However, because of coverage limitations and the exclusion of case information from Superior Courts to which serious cases may be transferred (CCJS, 1998a; Roberts & Birkenmayer, 1997), comparisons of adult and youth court data are not always possible, particularly with respect to the length of sentences handed down in the most serious of cases - homicide and aggravated sexual assault, for example. Because these cases are few in number, and we are concerned with general, nationwide trends in rates of incarceration and custodial sentences for all offences, our analysis is not affected by the limitations inherent in the survey data.

The Frequency of Custodial Sanctions in the Youth and Adult Courts

While the youth justice system is separate from the adult system, youths enjoy the same legal rights as adults. Procedures followed in youth court are, in general, similar to those of the adult court. Both adult and youth court cases are conducted in an adversarial manner with defence counsel arguing for the accused and the Crown prosecutor arguing for the people of Canada. The youth justice system is separate from that of adults, however, because Parliament has declared that young people, given their dependence and relative immaturity, should not be treated as adults. One would expect, then, that youths would be less likely than adults to be incarcerated. In fact, the opposite is the case. The YCS and ACCS data reveal that, in each of the latest three fiscal years in which the survey data is available (1997/98, 1996/97 and 1996/95), youths were more likely than adults to be convicted of at least one charge per case. In all three fiscal years, young offenders were also more likely to receive custodial sentences. Youths were also sentenced to custody for minor offences at a higher rate than adults. Additionally, because of the absence of remission in the youth system, youths spend a greater proportion of their sentence in custody. These findings are contrary to the widespread belief that Canadian youth courts fail to hold young people accountable for their criminal actions.

For the fiscal year 1997/98, 121,000 youths (aged 12 to 17) were charged with a Criminal Code or other federal offence, and of those charges that proceeded to youth court, 67% resulted in a finding of guilt. Thirty-four percent of youth cases with a conviction had a custodial disposition as the most serious sentence (CCJS, 1999a). Of all the cases included in the Youth Court Survey for 1997/98 (with or without a finding of guilt), 23% resulted in a custodial sentence. In contrast, the Adult Criminal Court Survey found that in 1997/1998, 61% of adult cases resulted in conviction and of these, 33% resulted in a prison sentence (CCJS, 1999a). Twenty percent of adult cases processed by the criminal court included a prison sentence. From these data, we can conclude that youths are slightly more likely than adults to end up in custody if their charges are dealt with by the court. The available data for the fiscal years 1996/97 and 1995/96 are also indicative of a relatively higher rate of incarceration among young people. These data, along with the data from the two subsequent fiscal years are presented in Table 1 below.

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