In effect, the YOA opened the doors of the youth court to the public and the media. This stands in sharp contrast to the in camera proceedings held in the office of the judge or in some other private room that took place under the Juvenile Delinquents Act. Allowing members of the community and the media into the courtroom to scrutinize the court increases accountability within the juvenile justice system (Milner, 1995). While the media can report on a youth’s court appearance, no names of young offenders or juvenile witnesses may be disclosed (unless the person in question is a youth transferred to adult court or is at large and poses a significant threat to the community). Further, the judge is free to remove any person from the courtroom if the administration of justice demands such action. The anonymity of young offenders is also provided for in sections 40 through 46 which place restrictions on access to the criminal records of youth. Records are to be kept by the RCMP in a central repository and may be accessed only by the young offender himself, his lawyer or parent, a select group of others. Records must be destroyed three years after the completion date for a summary disposition and after five years for an indictable offence. Protecting the anonymity of young offenders is essential to the rehabilitation and the subsequent reintegration of the youth into the community when his disposition has been served.

Dispositions available to judges under the YOA cover a much broader range than those allowed by the JDA. The maximum fine a youth can receive is one thousand dollars, up from a maximum of twenty-five dollars. A youth can be ordered to pay restitution to the victim of his offence; this disposition is usually reserved for offenders charged with property offences. Custodial sentences may be imposed: up to two years in open or secure custody, except when an adult found guilty of the same offence would face a life sentence, in which case the youth can be given a penalty of up to three years. As of the 1995 revisions to the YOA, other exceptions are made for those guilty of first- or second-degree murder. A young offender can receive a sentence of up to ten years for first-degree murder of which seven will be served in custody and three in the community. For second degree murder, a youth can be given a seven year sentence: four years must be served in custody and three in the community. A combination of the above dispositions can also be given.


The Young Offenders Act, since coming into force in 1984, has been hailed as “one of the most significant pieces of social policy legislation enacted in Canada during this generation, perhaps this century” (Hylton, 1994, p. 229). It has also been referred to by Justice Minister Anne McLellan as the most unpopular legislation in the country today. It is unpopular with many Canadians who think that it is not tough enough. These critics point to the so-called epidemic of violent youth crime in the United States and Canada. In the spring of 1999, for example, a number of tragedies involving youth violence shocked North America: the Columbine School shooting in Colorado in which two young men opened fire on schoolmates and subsequently killed themselves, as well as ?copycat’ school shootings in Taber, Alberta, and Atlanta, Georgia. Fear of crime is on the rise in Canada, fuelled by the media in an attempt to boost readership or viewers, and politicians have been under a significant amount of pressure to get tough on youth crime.

The YOA has been unpopular with children’s advocates as well, who are concerned with the overuse of incarceration for dealing with troubled youths. Another problem with the YOA is the disparity in sentences given to young people across jurisdictions and within jurisdictions who were sentenced by different judges. This arises from a lack of any clear legislative guidelines for sentencing and the ambivalence inherent in the Declaration of Principles in the Act (Doob, Marinos & Varma, 1995). The disparity in dispositions given to young offenders is thus expected because each judge must give priority to one of the principles put forth in the Act depending on various circumstances.

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