Canadian youth justice legislation has evolved considerably since the mid nineteenth century when the first criminal laws specific to young people were introduced. The Juvenile Delinquents Act of 1908 created a separate justice system for young people and was based on a philosophy of parens patriæ, which required the state to act as a surrogate parent when children were neglected or in need of guidance. The JDA was subject to sharp criticism in the 1960s for its failure to recognize the civil rights of young people. The JDA remained in force until 1984, when the Young Offenders Act replaced it. This Act attempted to balance the due process rights and special needs of young offenders with the protection of society. The YOA was not effective in reducing youth crime, and led to an unprecedented use of incarceration for young offenders. After amendments were made to the YOA in 1986, 1992, and 1995, it became clear that the Act needed to be replaced. In 1996, the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs conducted a review of the state of youth justice in Canada, and after their report was released in 1997, the government began to work on the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act, while an attempt to take youth crime seriously, can not be considered a hard-line, retributive approach to reducing criminality among young people. It is, in fact, a legislative attempt to hold young offenders accountable for their actions and to provide them with meaningful consequences in an effort to deter them from future criminality. The YCJA focuses on the use of extrajudicial measures or police warnings and cautions to deal with non-violent, less serious offenders, while concentrating the resources of the formal justice process on young offenders charged with more serious, violent offences. It is hoped that the YCJA will reduce the disparity in sentencing of young offenders by providing judges with clear principles for sentencing. It is also hoped that the rehabilitation and reintegration of young people will be achievable under the new Act. The YCJA declares that rehabilitation and reintegration are necessary to the protection of the public, and to further these goals, provides for a portion of each youth sentence to be served in the community. The Act, if implemented by the provinces with the intent to adhere to its guiding principles, has the potential to provide the youth justice system with a means with which to make effective and intelligent decisions, and ultimately work toward the primary objective of the Act- the protection of the public.