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

Short terms of custody

Many cases exist in which youths receive short terms of custody (e.g., 60 days or less). Correctional workers sometimes express concern about these sentences, in part, because they are seen as being long enough to disrupt a youth's life, but too short to provide any meaningful programming in the institution. Nevertheless, they are a popular disposition. Across Canada, 35% of the secure custody dispositions and 28% of the open custody dispositions are for less than one month. An additional 42% of the secure custody dispositions and 49% of the open custody dispositions are for a period of one month up to and including 3 months. [46]

In order to obtain information regarding the reason(s) behind the handing down of these sentences, we asked judges to indicate the importance of each of nine different factors in the decision to hand down a short period of time in custody.

Importance of various factors in the decision to hand down a short custodial disposition (n=238)
Importance of: 1=not at all important 2 3 4 5=very important Total Mean rating
Offence seriousness 4 % 8 % 10 % 27 % 52 % 100 % 4.14
Failure of non-custodial dispositions to stop offending 6 % 7 % 19 % 42 % 26 % 100 % 3.76
Short sharp shocks 7 % 10 % 20 % 33 % 30 % 100 % 3.69
Longer time in custody would interfere with productive activities (e.g., school) 6 % 10 % 28 % 34 % 22 % 100 % 3.56
Youth had spent substantial time in pretrial detention 13 % 11 % 15 % 36 % 24 % 100 % 3.46
Probation says non-custody is not appropriate 15 % 24 % 31 % 24 % 7 % 100 % 2.84
Importance of deterring others 24 % 30 % 23 % 15 % 8 % 100 % 2.53
Social conditions in youth's life made move sensible 26 % 23 % 28 % 19 % 4 % 100 % 2.52
Nothing else was available 50 % 21 % 13 % 8 % 7 % 100 % 2.01

This table shows two important things. First, and with respect to each of the nine factors, there were some judges (in fact, a minimum of nine judges) who indicated that each factor was "not at all important" and some judges (also at least nine judges) who indicated that this same factor was "very important." Obviously, judges are handing down short custodial dispositions for quite different reasons. Second, it is clear that some reasons were more important, on average, than others.

The most important factor in the decision to hand down a short custodial disposition was qualitatively different from the second and third most important factors. The most important factor was the need -- because of the seriousness of the offence -- to place the youth in custody. The second and third most important factors were both "future" oriented: the judges indicated their belief in the rehabilitative impact of sentences by giving relatively high ratings to the reason "The youth had been given non-custodial sentences in the past and did not stop offending" and by also endorsing the importance of "short sharp shocks."

The next set of two tables examines the average ratings for each factor in each jurisdiction. This set of tables demonstrates that significant variation exists across jurisdictions in the relative importance of the various factors. [47] This is important because it means that judges, in different regions, have different "theories" regarding the situation in which a short custodial disposition is appropriate. Given the absence of national standards and the lack of clear principles of sentencing in the YOA, it is not surprising that regional differences exist. The details of this table are not, perhaps, as important as the major finding: this specific type of disposition (short custodial terms) is apparently seen as serving different functions in different parts of the country.

Mean importance of various factors in the decision to impose short custodial dispostions (1=Not at all important; 5=Very important) -- Part I

Short custodial sentences:
importance of offence seriousness
Region Mean Standard Deviation N
Atlantic 4.1 0.9595 30
Quebec 3.9524 1.0235 21
Ontario 4.4909 0.9204 55
Prairies 3.7391 1.421 46
BC 4.2292 0.9728 48
Territories 4 1.4142 4
Total 4.1373 1.1101 204

Short custodial sentences:
importance of nothing else available
Region Mean Standard Deviation N
Atlantic 2.0667 1.2847 30
Quebec 2.9524 1.6272 21
Ontario 1.5455 0.9779 55
Prairies 1.7174 1.0886 46
BC 2.1667 1.2434 48
Territories 2.25 0.9574 4
Total 1.9657 1.2492 204

Short custodial sentences:
importance of probation,
says non-cust not appropriate
Region Mean Standard Deviation N
Atlantic 2.8 1.0954 30
Quebec 3.381 0.8646 21
Ontario 2.5091 1.1201 55
Prairies 2.6304 1.2357 46
BC 3.0833 1.0686 48
Territories 2.75 0.9574 4
Total 2.8088 1.1307 204

Short custodial sentences:
importance of need for change
Region Mean Standard Deviation N
Atlantic 2.8 1.0954 30
Quebec 2.381 1.244 21
Ontario 2.6 1.2561 55
Prairies 2.2609 1.1438 46
BC 2.4375 1.1091 48
Territories 2 0.8165 4
Total 2.4804 1.1680 204

Short custodial sentences:
importance of short sharp shock
Region Mean Standard Deviation N
Atlantic 3.4667 1.1958 30
Quebec 4.1905 0.7496 21
Ontario 3.4545 1.3446 55
Prairies 3.8696 1.2402 46
BC 3.7083 1.051 48
Territories 3.75 1.893 4
Total 3.6912 1.2025 204

Mean importance of various factors in the decision to impose short custodial dispositions (1=Not at all important; 5= Very important) -- Part II
Region Mean Standard Deviation N
Short custodial sentences:
importance of
deterring others
Atlantic 2.333 1.1547 30
Quebec 2.381 0.8646 21
Ontario 2.4727 1.3858 55
Prairies 2.5217 1.2951 46
BC 2.5625 1.2012 48
Territories 2.25 0.5 4
Total 2.4706 1.2214 204
Short custodial sentences:
importance of
failure of
non-cust to
stop youth
Atlantic 3.8333 0.9499 30
Quebec 4.381 0.5896 21
Ontario 3.6909 1.2152 55
Prairies 3.5 1.2953 46
BC 3.75 1.0211 48
Territories 3.75 0.9574 4
Total 3.7549 1.1136 204
Short custodial sentences:
importance of pre-
detention time

Atlantic 2.7667 1.3566 30
Quebec 3.4762 1.1670 21
Ontario 3.7091 1.3006 55
Prairies 3.5870 1.,3094 46
BC 3.3125 1.3234 48
Territories 4 0.8165 4
Total 3.4314 1.3206 204
Short custodial sentences:
importance of not
interfering with school etc
Atlantic 3.3333 1.2130 30
Quebec 3.6667 1.3166 21
Ontario 3.8 1.0784 55
Prairies 3.2174 1.2634 46
BC 3.6458 0.9338 48
Territories 3.5 1 4
Total 3.5441 1.1460 204
  • Main effect of "factors" F(8,1584) =39.28 p<.01 (Also significant excluding territories)
  • Interaction: Factors x Region, F(40,1584) = 2.158, p<.01 (Also significant excluding territories)

The range of different explanations for short custodial sentences is, of course, broader than the nine factors that were offered to judges in the question. Judges also noted that short custodial sentences were sometimes the result of joint submissions. Others commented that short sentences were sometimes imposed (as consecutive sentences) in cases of escape. Judges also gave specific examples of situations in which this type of sentence was given for rehabilitative or welfare purposes: to detoxify the youth, to break the pattern for an "out of control" youth, to provide the youth with the experience of custody but to avoid extended contact with other youths in trouble. Aside from anything else, it appears that some judges have come to believe in the effectiveness of a short sharp shock. One judge reported that a psychiatrist had informed him that a five day sentence would "shock" the youth, but not allow the youth to acclimatize to the institutional setting. Another explanation offered was that a short sentence constituted, for some youths, a better way of holding them accountable because they would be likely to breach a probation order (and, consequently, receive a much longer period of time in custody).


  • [46] Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada. Youth Court Data Tables, 1998-99. Ottawa: May 2000.
  • [47] Analyses of variance were computed for the five provincial regions only (ignoring the territories) as well as for five provincial regions and the territories. The results were the same: there was a significant effect of the "reasons" for the short sentences (some reasons were more important than others) as well as a significant interaction with region (or the five regions and the territories). The interaction indicates that the pattern of results across "reasons for short sentences" varies with the region. Note that the means in this table (for provinces and territories combined) may vary slightly from the means in the previous table since the tables dividing respondents by province/territory do not include those judges who did not indicate their province.
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