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

Theories of sentencing [25]

For each of three offences ("moderately serious violent offence such as an assault causing bodily harm", "a property offence such as a break-and-enter of a business establishment", and "an administration of justice offence such as 'failure to appear' or 'failure to comply with a disposition'") judges were asked to rate, on a five-point scale[26], the importance of each of the following principles or purposes of sentencing

  • denunciation,
  • general deterrence,
  • deterring this young person (specific deterrence),
  • proportionality (handing down a sentence in which the severity of the sentence reflects the seriousness of the offence),
  • rehabilitating this young person,
  • incapacitation (ensuring that this young person is separated from society),
  • protection of the public.[27]

Before looking at the data, it is worth noting that a number of judges indicated that it was difficult or impossible to answer these questions. As one judge commented, it was "not possible to rank on a generalized basis -- each case is different."

Looking first at the "moderately serious violent offence", it is clear that judges differentiated among the various purposes/principles. In each of these tables, a high number signifies that the factor was important (1 = "not at all important" and 5 = "very important").

Mean importance of various factors in determining the sentence for three different offences. (1=not at all important; 5=very important)
  Offence
Factor Moderately serious violent offence Property offence: e.g., b&e business establishment Admin. justice: e.g., failure to appear
Rehabilitating this young person 4.63 4.57 3.61
Deterring this young person 4.02 3.95 3.73
Proportionality 3.57 3.35 3.05
Protection of the public 3.45 3.07 1.79
Denunciation 2.81 2.61 2.42
General deterrence 2.62 2.59 2.54
Incapacitation 2.17 1.93 1.46
  • Moderately serious violence: F= 179.98, df=6, 1278, p <.001
  • Property offence: F = 201.47, df=6, 1272, p <.001,
  • Administration of justice: F = 157.92, df=6, 1308, p<.001

When comparing the violent and property offences, it is clear that the patterns are quite similar. However, this pattern changes when examining the administration of justice offence. Although rehabilitation is, once again, relatively high for this offence, individual deterrence is seen as being just as important. (For the other two offences, individual deterrence was seen as the second most important factor to be considered.)

Another way of looking at the importance of these factors in sentencing is to examine the factors which tend to correlate with each other. Given that judges often invoke denunciation and (general) deterrence as a related pair of purposes, it is not surprising that these two factors are fairly highly correlated for each of the three offences -- .52,.65 and.52 (each p <.05) for the violence, property and administration of justice offences, respectively. In other words, judges who see one of these as important, tend to see the other as important; judges who see one as not very important, rate the other in a similar fashion.

On the other hand, the importance of rehabilitation was either negatively or not correlated with denunciation and general deterrence for each of the three offences (-.19 & -.15 for violence, each p<.05; -.25 & -.24 for property, each p<.05 ;.11 &.03, for the administration of justice offence, not significant).

Under the YCJA, proportionality will, in effect, determine the severity of the sentence, though, within the bounds defined by proportionality, the sentence must "be the one that is most likely to rehabilitate the young person and reintegrate him or her into society" (Section 38(2)(d)(ii) of the YCJA). Proportionality is often, incorrectly, seen as being a necessary component of general or individual deterrence. Sentences can be proportional to the harm done on the basis of "justice" concerns quite independent of deterrence concerns. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the importance of proportionality was positively correlated with the importance of general and individual deterrence for each of the three offences (.22 &.18;.17 &.24, and.14 &.16, for the three offences; p <.05 in all cases). In other words, judges who thought that deterrence was a significant factor also tended to see the principle of proportionality as being important.


  • [25] I am using the word "sentencing" rather than the more correct YOA form of "handing down a disposition" as a shorthand and because "sentencing" refers to a specific kind of disposition which excludes other forms of dispositions (e.g., transfers to adult court, detention before trial). In any case, under the YCJA, if it becomes law, "sentencing" will become the "proper" term.
  • [26] With regard to this set of questions and those of Question G6, a small number of judges simply checked the factors that were important to them rather than rating the importance of all factors. Instead of eliminating these judges, we scored a "checked" factor as 4 and an unchecked factor as 2.
  • [27] Questions D1, D2, D3
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