The implementation of the Young Offenders Act clearly led to an increase in the use of custody as dispositions in the youth court, but the length of custodial dispositions has decreased since 1984 (Doob & Meen, 1993; Doob, 1992; Corrado & Markwart, 1994; Markwart, 1992). In Alberta, for example, the median length of secure custody sentences decreased by two-thirds from 1984/85 to 1989/90 (Markwart, 1992). Under the JDA, judges did not determine a definite length for custodial sentences, so it is not surprising that youths spent longer periods of time in custody. Youths were sentenced to custody and released when they were cured of delinquency or when they turned 21, whichever came first. The YOA required judges to attach a specific length to youth sentences - up to 2 years for most offences and 3 years for any offence for which an adult could receive life imprisonment. Under the YOA, youths could no longer be incarcerated for years on end (possibly until they reached 21), and consequently sentence length decreased. But why did the use of custody increase so dramatically since the enactment of the YOA?


Various principles of sentencing have contributed to the rise in custodial dispositions for young offenders since the enactment of the YOA; most notably, rehabilitation and child welfare concerns, deterrence and denunciation. Under the JDA, the welfare of the youth was paramount, and thus, treatment was emphasized by the court. The YOA, based on a hybrid model combining elements of the child - welfare and justice models, offers no clear sentencing guidelines (Anand, 1998a) and does not provide a consistent statement of the Act’s intent in its Declaration of Principle. Consequently, youth court judges have had more freedom since the introduction of the YOA to sentence youths based on a multitude of conflicting principles.

When the Young Offenders Act came into force in 1984, the youth justice and child welfare systems became separate entities, and a dilemma arose for youth court judges: neglected and abused children without home lives could no longer be committed to the Director of Child Welfare, but it was imperative that these children be removed from their homes or ?saved’ from the streets. The solution to this dilemma increasingly became open custody, which was (and still is) considered to be a rehabilitative disposition - in custody, according to this line of thinking, a child can get the help that he needs to become a productive citizen. In a study of the Alberta youth court during the first year of the YOA by Gabor, Greene, and McCormick (1986), family and youth division judges were asked if they equated open custody dispositions with committals to the Director of Child Welfare. Many of the judges surveyed responded that they saw a similarity between the dispositions, pointing to the rehabilitative nature of an open custodial disposition. In the past, youths from troubled homes could be placed in foster care and removed from the formal justice process. Today, neglected and abused youth are often put in custody ‘for their own good.’

Several youth cases underscore the acceptance of a judicial concern for a young offender’s welfare as a legitimate reason for imposing a custodial disposition. In a case documented in Leschied and Jaffe’s paper, a young girl of 13 was given a secure custody disposition for breaching a condition of probation. Such a punitive disposition is intended to be reserved for serious and/or violent offenders. The court, in this case, sentenced the girl to secure custody “out of concern for the fact that the girl had been involved in street prostitution and her history included many serious risk factors for subsequent disturbance, such as sexual abuse” (Leschied & Jaffe, 1995, p. 428). The very young and clearly troubled girl was put in a secure facility not because she was a danger to society, but because of concerns the court had for her lifestyle.

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