Effective, just and humane responses
to the causes and consequences of crime

The YCJA: How did we get here? (Part 3)

Original_Canadian_parliamentIn the previous installments of this series (Part 1 and Part 2), we’ve seen how the treatment of youth by the criminal justice system had evolved in Canada’s early history. In part 3, we’ll look at the first piece of legislation designed to directly address youth: the Juvenile Delinquents Act of 1908.

The Juvenile Delinquents Act (JDA) was meant to change the focus of the justice system’s treatment of youths from judicial to social. The emphasis was to be on the welfare of youth, rather than their punishment. The state’s role in the life of a youth in trouble was to be based on the idea of parens patriae, or “parent of the country”, which meant it could intervene on behalf of a young person whose parents were not caring for her properly. The new principle was what would be best for the child.

Separate juvenile courts would be set up for youth, and separate facilities for holding youth in custody would be created, such as detention homes. For the first time, a ban on publication of the youth’s name, as well as his parents, was put in place during the trial, which was also held in private. (An exception could be made for youths over age 14 charged with indictable offences like murder.) There were more choices given to judges for sentencing, and more restrictions on the severity of sentences. A young person convicted of a crime could not be sent to a facility that also housed adults. In general, the Act was governed by the idea that “every juvenile delinquent shall be treated, not as a criminal, but as a misdirected and misguided child”.

The changes brought about by the JDA were widespread, significant, and long-lasting. Treatment of juvenile delinquents was radically different after its enactment, and continued for close to a quarter century. Despite its revolutionary nature however, it was not considered perfect, and had many critics.

Over the next 75 years, attempts were made to revise or replace the JDA. In 1965, a report entitled Juvenile Delinquency in Canada was published. The report listed the contemporary system’s failings, among them an uneven distribution and quality of the institutions, staff and policies dedicated to juvenile delinquents. The report also called for measures beyond the JDA’s scope, such as more restrictions on the courts’ powers, and a larger selection of sentencing options, especially non-judicial ones. It also called for greater rights protection, including a demand that the courts advise youths of their right to counsel.

After many years of discussion and debate, the first signs of a new act to replace the JDA arrived. Bill C-192, the Young Offenders Act, was introduced in 1970. It incorporated many of the ideas and recommendations from the 1965 report, but was restricted to changes to the federal justice system only, because of concern about its scope expressed by the provinces. C-192 was met with significant criticism and debate, in part because of its severity compared to the JDA, and died on the order table when Parliament dissolved in 1972.

The bill’s failure prompted the Solicitor General to create another committee to study the current state of juvenile justice in Canada again. The committee published their report in 1975, Young Persons in Conflict with the Law, which listed over 100 recommendations. These would influence in part the next piece of legislation to emerge, the Young Offenders Act. Similar to its 1970 predecessor in name only, it became the catalyst for the next great change in juvenile justice in Canada.

In part 4, we’ll take a look at the Young Offenders Act, as well as its successor, the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

If you’re interested in learning more about our current youth justice system, the John Howard Society of Alberta has a collection of educational materials about the Youth Criminal Justice Act, including an introduction and summary.

Much of the information in this article was summarized from this publication from Justice Canada.