Youth Justice

Special considerations come into play when young people commit acts that are considered criminal. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) is the federal law that governs Canada's youth justice system. It applies to youth aged 12 to 17 who get into trouble with the law. The YCJA recognizes that young persons must be held accountable for criminal acts, although not in the same way or to the same extent as adults. It is in society's interest to ensure that as many young offenders as possible are rehabilitated and become productive members of society.

The YCJA recognizes that young people lack the maturity of adults. The youth justice system includes measures that are consistent with this reduced level of maturity. The YCJA also recognizes that young people have special needs and circumstances that must be considered when any decision is made under the Act.

While many aspects of criminal procedure are similar in the youth and adult criminal justice systems, the YCJA establishes special procedures to ensure that young people are treated fairly and to promote their rehabilitation. For example, as a general rule, the privacy of young offenders and young victims and witnesses is protected through publication bans on their identity.

The YCJA says that young people are to be held accountable in ways that are fair and in proportion to the seriousness of their offences. These interventions should

  • reinforce respect for societal values;
  • encourage the repair of harm done;
  • be meaningful to the offender;
  • respect gender, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences; and
  • respond to the needs of Aboriginal young persons and of young persons with special requirements.
Canadian youth courts completed about 48,000 cases in 2011–12, down 10% from the previous year. The largest decreases were in the territories, where declines ranged from 23% to 36%.

The YCJA encourages the use of measures outside of the formal court system for less serious offences. These measures are often the most appropriate and effective way to respond to youth offending, and include options such police warnings and referrals to community-based programs.

Youth cases that do end up in the formal court system are conducted in special youth courts. If a youth is found guilty of a criminal offence, the youth court judge must determine the appropriate sentence. The YCJA has specific sentencing provisions for young offenders that are different than the adult sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code.

In most cases, judges impose one of the youth sentencing options in the YCJA. However, in very serious cases, the court does have the power to impose an adult sentence. If an adult sentence is imposed, the Criminal Code penalties for adult offenders are applied to the young person. This can include mandatory minimum penalties and sentences up to life imprisonment. However, a young person cannot serve any portion of a sentence in an adult prison before he or she is 18 years old.

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