Table 1: Relative frequency of custodial sentences in Canadian adult and youth courts


  YOUTH COURT ADULT COURT
 
% of cases resulting in a conviction

cases with a conviction resulting in custody (%)

% of total cases resulting in custody
% of cases resulting in a conviction

cases with a conviction resulting in custody (%)

% of total cases resulting in custody
1997/98
67 34 23
61 33 20
1996/97
68 34 23
64 30 19
1995/96
66 33 22
64 30 19

Sources: Youth Court Survey, CCJS (cited in CCJS, 1999b, 1998e, 1997 b) and the Adult Criminal Court Survey, CCJS (cited in CCJS, 1998a, 1998d, 1997e).


One could argue that more youths than adults are convicted because adults are more likely to be tried for crimes that they have not committed. This argument can not be supported by any empirical data, however, because there is no measure of ‘innocence’ in the criminal justice system (‘not guilty’ and ‘innocent’ are conceptually distinct - if one is innocent of a crime, the offence was not committed; if one is found not guilty, sufficient proof was not presented by the court to warrant a conviction for an offence). The fact that youths were found guilty more often than were adults in 1997/98 does not, in itself, logically entail that a greater proportion of adults were innocent of the crimes for which they were charged. A smaller proportion of adult cases ended in conviction simply because guilt could not be established beyond a reasonable doubt in 39% of adult cases, versus 33% of youth cases. It is fair to assume that innocent people are found in equal proportions in the adult and youth courts, but perhaps because youth cases are processed within a short period of time and the sanctions available for youths are considered less severe, youths are convicted at a higher rate than adults.

The Use of Custodial Dispositions for Minor Offences

Not only are youths more likely than adults to be sentenced to custody, they are also more likely than adults to be given custodial sentences for minor offences. Adults are routinely sentenced to prison more often than youths for violent and property crimes, while in each year included in our analysis, youth cases for which the most serious charge was neither a property offence nor a violent offence, were more likely to result in a custodial disposition than comparable adult cases. These offences include Criminal Code violations neither classified as violent nor property offences, such as breach of recognizance, failure to appear, impaired driving, Narcotics Control Act violations and violations of other federal statutes including the Young Offenders Act.

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