In parts one, two and three in this series, we looked at youth in the criminal justice system from Canada’s earliest days as a country, to the first legislation specifically designed for youth. In this final installment of our series, we’ll be looking at the direct ancestor of today’s Youth Criminal Justice Act: the Young Offenders Act.
By 1981, Canada’s first youth-oriented criminal justice legislation, the Juvenile Delinquents Act (JDA), had been in force for over 70 years. That year saw the first introduction of its possible successor. Tabled as Bill C-61, the Young Offenders Act (YOA) would prove to be very different from the JDA. For one, it was carefully studied and worked over; in contrast, the JDA was passed after barely an hour of debate. The parliamentary subcommittee studying the bill received feedback from over 3 dozen special interest groups. While the groups, as well as the three major political parties, were more or less agreed about the legal rights in the bill, there was more concern about the implications of those rights.
Indeed, it was rights that were top of mind in that period, as 1982 saw the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter now made the JDA seem especially outdated, because it seemed to ignore certain rights of young offenders.
The bulk of the YOA came into force in 1984. Like the JDA, it continued the distinction between the treatment of youth and adults in the criminal justice system, emphasizing a more benevolent approach, but simultaneously stressing the importance of accountability for actions. The YOA introduced a number of rights for youth previously reserved for adults, such as appealing a conviction and legal counsel. The YOA also saw the first appearance of a new range of consequences for convicted youth like community service and fines. New age limits were set; the minimum age for prosecution was raised to twelve years, and a uniform maximum of age 17 across the country was set.
The YOA made a substantial number of improvements over the JDA, but like all legislation, it had its supporters and detractors. Some critics found the Act too lax in its approach, while others expressed concern about the overuse of incarceration.
After more than a decade in force, a review of the YOA was initiated. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs held hearings to get feedback from concerned parties such as child services groups, youth, parents, and analysts. The Committee’s report, Renewing Youth Justice, was released in 1997, and contained 14 recommendations. The federal government’s response to the report outlined three areas of focus for new legislation: meaningful consequences for actions, rehabilitating and reintegrating young offenders, and preventing crime.
After the introduction of a new bill and its reintroduction after extensive amendments, the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into effect in 2003. Aside from a few changes made to it in 2012, it remains the current law of the land for young offenders. Among the changes it introduced: less reliance on the formal justice system and more emphasis on reintegration, a Declaration of Principle outlining the philosophy behind the Act, and replacement of transfer of a youth to adult court with adult sentences.
While there will no doubt be more changes to come in youth criminal justice legislation, nevertheless it is clear that Canada has been making a more or less steady progression towards a justice system that is fairer, more compassionate, and more enlightened in its treatment of young offenders.
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.