Amendments to the Young Offenders Act were made shortly after its introduction, in 1986, 1992, and 1995. Changes made to the YOA in 1986 included a provision for a responsible person to provide pre-trial supervision to a young offender. This purpose of this amendment was to reduce the use of pre-trial custody for youths, which had become quite common after 1984. A second amendment was the inclusion of non-compliance with a disposition as a criminal offence in its own right. Other substantive changes included the publication of the names of youths who were considered dangerous and were at large, and the extension of the three year maximum custody disposition for youths who commit an offence while serving a sentence for a previous conviction. The 1992 amendments included an increase of the maximum sentence for murder from three to five years, a provision to shorten the length of time spent in prison before parole eligibility for youth transferred to adult court and found guilty of murder, and a new standard was established for the transfer of a young offender to the ordinary court that made the protection of society paramount (Hylton, 1994). Bill C-37, proclaimed in force in December of 1995, provided for the transfer to adult court of 16- and 17-year-old youths charged with personal injury offences resulting in serious harm or death. Other amendments made in the 1995 legislation include: an increase of the maximum sentences for first- and second- degree murder to seven and ten years, respectively; a provision allowing the records of serious young offenders to be retained for a longer period of time; and an extension of the period of time a young offender given an adult sentence for murder must serve in prison before becoming eligible for parole (Sapers & Leonard, 1996).

Despite the considerable amount of criticism it has received, the Young Offenders Act is clearly an improvement over the JDA as it represents a balance of the due process rights of young people, the protection of society, and the special needs of young offenders (Leonard & Morris, (in press)). Unfortunately, this attempt to balance a number of societal goals without establishing a consistent set of policy objectives has led to great disparity in the treatment of young offenders across Canada, and in some provinces, an over-use of incarceration. While the YOA’s apparent ambivalence was an honest effort to solve the difficult social problem of youth crime, it was not working to reduce recidivism or to decrease the amount of youth crime in Canada. In 1996, the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs conducted a review of the juvenile justice system in Canada, and compiled a report, released in 1997, which included many recommendations for improvement (Department of Justice, 1998). The Liberal government of Canada subsequently developed its Youth Justice Strategy which recognizes that “public protection must be the principle objective of youth justice renewal.”

The Youth Justice Strategy focusses on three areas: youth crime prevention, providing young people with meaningful consequences for their actions, and the rehabilitation and reintegration of young offenders (Department of Justice, 1999a). The government proposes that by focussing attention on, and putting resources into these three areas, the protection of society will result. The logic is quite simple: providing meaningful consequences for criminal offences committed by youths will have both a specific deterrent effect (the young offender himself will be less likely to commit further crimes) and a general deterrent effect (other adolescents will be discouraged from committing offences). Rehabilitating and reintegrating young offenders into the community after their dispositions are served will reduce recidivism, and thus, have a significant impact on young crime. Finally, by working pro-actively to prevent youth crime by addressing the social-structural factors involved in criminal behaviour, the Youth Justice Strategy will further the primary goal of the Youth Criminal Justice Act - the protection of society.

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