Youth Court Judges' Views of the Youth Justice system: The results of a survey

Introduction

Judges clearly play a central role in the youth justice system. Not only do they make many of the key decisions concerning what happens to a youth who comes into the formal court system, but they also have special credibility that others in the system lack. The police, the Crown Attorneys, defence counsel, the accused youth and the youth's family, and the victim and the victim's family all have -- or are seen to have -- interests in the system. However, their perspectives are typically more constrained than is that of the judge.

The judge, and perhaps the probation officer, are unusual in the court structure in that they have an important interest in the fairness and appropriateness of the procedure and the outcome, but do not have a professional attachment to any particular result. Furthermore, the judge has the advantage over the probation officer of having a view of most, if not all, of the system.

Governments, professional organizations, and other observers of the youth justice system often publicly express their views of the youth justice system. In contrast, judges are largely prevented from doing so because the public expression of an individual judge's views of the youth justice system may be seen, by some, as compromising his/her ability to deal fairly with cases that come before him/her. Consequently, it appears that while judges are allowed to have views -- about whether cases should be brought before them, whether they are provided with adequate resources, whether the lawyers in the case are well trained and well prepared, etc. -- there are limits placed on their ability to express these opinions.

Looking ahead at some of the findings, one can understand why judges are reluctant to express their views publicly lest it bring criticisms to their doors. Survey results document two judges who, in response to one of the questions, indicated that only "a few" defence counsel appearing in youth court before them were well prepared. This statement is contrasted with "all, or almost all" Crown attorneys appearing in their courtrooms who were "well prepared for the case and well informed about the youth justice system." I would expect a judge who expressed these views publicly might raise concerns among defence counsel regarding whether they would be treated fairly. But surely it is important to know that judges, in general, see defence counsel who appear before them as less well prepared than Crown attorneys appearing in their courtrooms. Further, although the two lawyers (defence counsel and the Crown attorney) received different evaluations by a few judges, a fairly strong relationship (r =.67) between the two sets of ratings was found, in general.

Thus, this survey represents a mechanism for all of us - judges and others - to hear the views of youth court judges. Moreover, it constitutes a means through which youth court judges can have their views expressed publicly, in an aggregate format, whereby they cannot be personally criticized for their opinions.

The views of youth court judges are particularly important at this point in the history of our youth justice. Within the next year or so, it is likely that we will be operating our youth justice system under new legislation. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) has been criticized as being both "too harsh" and "not harsh enough" by its various critics. The "harshness" dimension is probably one of the least important characteristics on which the YCJA may differ from the current law, the Young Offenders Act (YOA). For the youth court judge, the YCJA requires an almost entirely different way of thinking about some of the critical decisions to be made about young people appearing in youth court. Sentencing, for example, is to be governed by a set of explicit principles that are designed to dramatically change the way in which judges go about deciding how to respond to wrongdoing. Evidence of how judges now see their responsibilities in this area may help facilitate the changes that are necessary for compliance with the law as it is laid out in the YCJA.

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