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State of the Criminal Justice System Dashboard

Information on the Criminal Justice System

What is the criminal justice system?

The criminal justice system apprehends, prosecutes, defends, sentences, rehabilitates and reintegrates those who are accused or convicted of illegal activity. An efficient, effective, and fair criminal justice system depends on the successful coordination of separate but interrelated programs, services and initiatives operating within federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal jurisdictions. Among these, police, courts, and correctional services are the central processing and decision-making points for people who come in contact with the criminal justice system (e.g., accused, victims, witnesses, families, services providers).Footnote 6 Legal aid programs and victims’ services are other critical components of the criminal justice system. Other social systems, for example health care and education, interact with the criminal justice system in important ways.

Federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments share responsibility for the criminal justice system. The federal government makes criminal laws that apply across the country and sets the procedure for criminal courts (Constitution Act, 1867, ss. 91(27)). This helps ensure that criminal matters are treated fairly and consistently across the country. The provinces and territories administer justiceFootnote 7 within their own jurisdictions (ibid, ss. 92(14)); they enforce the law, prosecute most offences, and provide assistance to victims of crime. Federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments share responsibility for policing in Canada. The provinces and territories are responsible for administering correctional services for youth, while federal and provincial/territorial governments share responsibilities for adult correctional services. The federal government is responsible for adults (aged 18 and over) sentenced to two or more years of custody. Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for adults sentenced to less than two years of custody, those held while awaiting trial or sentencing (remand), those serving community sentences, such as probation and young people in conflict with the law.

An efficient, effective, and fair criminal justice system depends on successfully coordinating federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal jurisdictions in a number of separate but interrelated parts. These include: legislatures (which enact the laws); law enforcement; legal services and courts (e.g., prosecution, defence, legal aid); victim services; correctional services; various stakeholders; service providers; community members and groups; and other social support systems, such as health, education, and social services.

The criminal justice system as referred to in the Dashboard encompasses both the adult and youth criminal justice systems. It should be highlighted that the two systems are separate. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) (2002) is the law that governs Canada’s youth justice system. It applies to youth, 12 to 17 years of age, who are alleged to have committed a criminal offence. The youth system is different from the adult system in many respects: measures of accountability are consistent with young persons’ reduced level of maturity, procedural protections are enhanced, rehabilitation and reintegration are given special emphasis, and the importance of timely intervention is explicitly recognized.

How does the criminal justice system interact with other social systems?

The criminal justice system operates within a broader social context, which includes demographic, social, and economic factors, as well as other social systems (e.g., health, education, housing, social services, child welfare). Many socioeconomic risk factors are associated with involvement in the criminal justice system. Some of these include poverty, child welfare involvement, low levels of education and employment, previous victimization, mental health and addictions issues, and homelessness. How the health, child welfare, education, and social services sectors identify, prioritize, fund, and address other social issues can affect how the criminal justice system operates. For instance, if health system programs are successful in identifying, treating, and/or managing mental health issues and providing appropriate supports, they can help prevent crime, reduce a person’s risk of contact with the criminal justice system, and reduce incarceration rates. Other social systems can not only help with prevention but can also reduce and manage risk after someone is involved in the criminal justice system by helping build skills, addressing health and mental health needs, and promoting rehabilitation.

Additional information about Canada’s criminal justice system is available at the following link:

The criminal justice system and victims’ rights

There have been provisions in the Criminal Code to support victims/survivors since the 1980s, for example restitution,Footnote 8 testimonial aids,Footnote 9 victim impact statementsFootnote 10 and the federal victim surcharge.Footnote 11 Similarly, provinces and territories have enacted their own bills of rights and other legislation to support victims/survivors over the past two decades. Since 2000, the Federal Victims Strategy Victims FundFootnote 12 has provided funding to provinces, territories and organizations to better support victims/survivors. The Strategy also has supported, and continues to support, research on victim/survivor issues, policy development and public awareness.

Under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR)Footnote 13, victims/survivors have the right to ask for information about the justice system, about services available to them, including restorative justice programs, and about the progress of their case and the status of the person who harmed them. Victims/survivors have the right to protection. This includes the rights to have their security and privacy considered, to have reasonable and necessary protection from intimidation and retaliation, and to ask that their identity not be publicly released. If testifying in court, victims/survivors have the right to request testimonial aids and, in cases of sexual assault, amendments to the Criminal Code have changed how third-party records are handled to better protect the safety and privacy victims/survivors.

Victims/survivors also have the right to participation. This means that they have the right to present victim impact statements and have them considered. Victim impact statements allow the victim/survivor to describe to the court the impact the crime had on them, including any physical or emotional harm, property damage, or financial loss. Victims/survivors also have the right to request restitution. This means that the court must consider making a restitution order for their financial losses and to have any unpaid amount enforced through a civil court.

Victims/survivors who have registered with the Correctional Service of Canada or the Parole Board of Canada also have the right to certain information about the offender in their case.

Public Legal Education and Information

Information and educational activities that are provided to people about the law and justice system by organizations other than legal institutions is commonly referred to as public legal education and information. The main objective is to provide information in a form that is timely and appropriate to individual needs. However, it is does not include advocacy or representation on behalf of individuals, or the provision of legal advice.

The following are links to organizations that provide public legal education and information so that individuals can make informed decisions and participate effectively in the justice system. These organizations do not give "legal advice." They provide information or referrals about various aspects of criminal and civil law, including for example, new legislation, child support guidelines, rights of victims, family violence or youth justice.