As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Canadian youth justice system faces a major overhaul that will come with the implementation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). The current juvenile legislation, the Young Offenders Act (YOA), is unpopular with the public, hard-line ‘just- deserts’ critics, and children’s advocates alike. The implementation of the YCJA is expected to result in the reduction of the use of custody for young offenders while holding young people accountable for their criminal conduct. The primary goal of the new legislation is to protect society, but the rehabilitation of young offenders and respecting the due process rights of youths are related goals that are not overlooked by the Act. This clear statement of principle is an improvement on the balancing act attempted by the YOA in which many competing principles led to great disparity in the treatment of youths in the juvenile justice system.

Youth crime has always been a serious and complex problem in Canada, but the legislative ‘solutions’ to this problem have evolved considerably in the past century. This paper represents an attempt to describe the evolution of Canadian juvenile justice legislation and to compare the principles and practice of the Juvenile Delinquents Act, the Young Offenders Act, and the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The impact that each Act had (or will have) on the youth justice system will also be considered.


At the end of the nineteenth century in Canada and in many other western nations, the concept of youth had undergone a dramatic shift. Centuries ago, “few distinctions were made on the basis of age and young people were fully integrated into the main stream of social life” (Caputo, 1987, p. 126). Many children performed menial jobs or apprenticed into trades at an early age, and education was a luxury reserved for the rich. Sociologist Philippe Ariès, in his book Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, argues that a concept of childhood began to develop in Europe in the seventeenth century when infant mortality rates were declining (cited in Smandych, 1995, p. 8). According to Ariès, in medieval times, a high rate of infant mortality worked against the establishment of strong emotional bonds between parents and their offspring. As the rate of infant mortality declined, due to improved sanitation and the elimination of the plague, children were expected to live into adulthood and parents were thus allowed to make an emotional investment in their children. Societal ambivalence toward youth was gradually replaced by an interest in protecting children and fostering their development. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a general consensus in Canada that children were fundamentally distinct from adults and required special care and guidance.

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