Lesson 5: Young People and the Law
The Youth Criminal Justice Act-A First Look
A five-year-old girl sets fire to the neighbour's living-room rug to watch it burn. Most Canadians would agree that what she did was wrong; but few people, if any, would consider arresting the child and putting her in jail. Instead, most people would be wondering who was supervising her at the time and how she was able to get access to the matches. It seems obvious that different standards must be applied to children's behaviour than to that of adults, and this is especially true in the area of criminal law.
A fundamental principal of criminal law is that two things must be present for something to be considered a crime:
- a wrongful action (called by the Latin expression actus reus)
- a clear intention to commit that action or, at the very least, an understanding of the harm your action might cause (called by the Latin expression mens rea)
It is generally felt that children, though they can certainly do things most people would consider wrong, cannot form the clear intention of doing something wrong. They lack the ability to comprehend the consequences of their acts. The little girl who sets fire to the neighbours' rug is not intending to cause trouble, and she almost certainly does not understand the damage she might be doing. She is just innocently curious to see what will happen.
This conviction that children cannot be expected to be as accountable for their actions as adults are explains the fact that our legal system treats them differently. In Canada today, no one under the age of 12 can be charged with a crime.
Of course, the line dividing children from adults is not exactly a clear one, and young people who are no longer children but not quite yet adults must be dealt with fairly.
It is this group of people, between the ages of 12 and 17, inclusive, who are covered in Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act. This act, which was passed in 2002, is based on the premise that young people have the same rights as adults under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It also holds youths, who commit crimes, responsible for their actions but outlines different procedures and penalties for them, in the belief that as young people they need additional rights and protection.
The following chart will make clear the three levels of criminal responsibility in Canada.
|Levels of Criminal Responsibility|
|Adults||18 years and older||Fully legally responsible|
|Youth||12 to 17 years||Partially legally responsible|
|Children||Birth to 11 years||Not legally responsible|
The Youth Criminal Justice Act was passed in an attempt to rectify what some people felt were shortcomings in the statute that preceded it-the Young Offenders Act of 1984.'
The Youth Criminal Justice Act starts with the idea that youths should be held responsible for their criminal acts. However, the rules and procedures still take into account that these are young people who have made mistakes. Thus, in most cases they are treated differently from adults, who are expected to be fully responsible for their actions.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act is a federal statute. It applies to youths who break laws passed by the federal government, such as those in the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Each province in Canada, however, has its own legislation dealing with young people charged with (or convicted of) offenses. Thus, Alberta has a Young Offenders Act of its own.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act-A Closer Look
Youths have the same rights and freedoms that all Canadians have under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These include the right to be told why they are being detained or arrested, the right to free legal advice, and the right to apply for release on bail.
Parents or guardians must be told as soon as their child has been detained or arrested by the police. When youths are convicted of crimes, their parents or guardians must be allowed to provide sentencing input.
First offenders who have committed a non-violent crime and who do not seem likely to reoffend are given the chance to participate in extra judicial-sanctions programs. These programs involve things like returning stolen goods, apologizing to victims, doing community service, and receiving drug and alcohol counselling.
Extra judicial-sanctions programs: programs whereby non-violent, first-time young offenders can admit to having committed a crime and then do something to compensate for it rather than go to court
Youths charged with offenses can apply for bail, but usually they will be released into the custody of a parent or guardian. They may also be temporarily placed in foster homes or put under house arrest.
Youths do not have the right to decide on the court system in which they will be tried. Unless a case is sent to adult court, trials will be in the Youth Division of the Provincial Court.
The names of most youths charged with crimes cannot be made public;' however, the media may report the names of those aged 14 to 17 who are convicted of serious violent crimes.
If youths 14 years or older are charged with serious violent crimes or are repeat offenders, cases may be transferred to adult court. This means that they will be tried-and probably sentenced-as adults. In cases like these, special hearings are called before the trial to decide whether or not to transfer the case. Victims and parents can present their views.
Bail: money held to guarantee that an accused will appear at a later hearing
Foster home: the home of an existing family into which a youth charged with a crime may be temporarily placed for care and rehabilitation
House arrest: a court order requiring a person to stay at home during set periods of time
- Some people have objected to the fact that the Youth Criminal Justice Act allows judges to decide which cases to transfer to adult court. Think about this issue and a reason for this objection.
Turn to the Suggested Answers at the end of this lesson and compare your answers with the ones given there.
Youth Court judges have more options open to them in sentencing young offenders so that the individual circumstances of each convicted youth can be taken into account. Judges usually place more emphasis on rehabilitation than they would when sentencing adults because it's believed the likelihood of success is greater.
A youth convicted of a minor first-time offense may be given an absolute discharge, but a record of the conviction is kept and can be used in deciding sentencing if the youth is convicted of another offense later on.
Other youths convicted of offenses may have to pay a fine (and that means the youths themselves, not their parents or guardians), compensate a victim, or do community service. Sometimes a youth will be put on probation; this means that he or she will be placed under the authority of a probation officer for up to two years.
Probation: a criminal sentence that gives an offender some degree of freedom (rather than a prison term) but that requires the person convicted to be supervised and to meet certain conditions for a stipulated period of time.
Youths convicted of serious offenses may be taken into custody. The most lenient form of custody is called open custody, and it usually involves living in a foster home or a group home or participating in something like a residential-wilderness program designed to teach self-reliance, a respect for authority, and an ability to work with others.
A more severe form of custody, is called secure custody, whereby youths convicted of the most serious offenses or who are repeat offenders are placed behind bars-often in special wings of adult jails where they can be completely separated from other prisoners. Even here, the chief objective is rehabilitation.
Open custody: a criminal sentence that involves comparatively light supervision and some access to the community
Group home: a home set up to house a number of young offenders as they work off their sentences
Fill in the blanks, in the following sentences as they relate to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
- The Youth Criminal Justice Act deals with criminal actions committed by youth aged__________to__________, inclusive.
- The Youth Criminal Justice Act was passed in the year 2002, replacing the__________Act.
- According to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, youths charged with crimes must be informed of their__________.
- The Act stipulates that the__________of a youth charged with a crime be notified as soon as possible.
- Youths thought to be at risk of reoffending, may be placed in__________homes while awaiting trial.
- Young offenders aged__________to__________who are charged with violent crimes may have their cases tried in adult court.
- __________programs allow young offenders accused of non-violent crimes to do something to make up for them rather than go through a trial.
- According to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, with certain exceptions, it's forbidden to publish the__________of youths charged with crimes.
Turn to the Suggested answers below and compare your answers with the ones given there.
- Responses may vary somewhat, but some people believe that allowing judges this discretion means that youths charged with the same crimes are being treated differently. Naturally, some judges stress rehabilitation while others put more emphasis on public security and maintaining law and order; and these differing values can result in very different sentences for young offenders. Those in favor of letting judges decide how some cases will be tried, however, point out that it helps assure that individual differences are taken into account for each case involving a young offender.
- The Youth Criminal Justice Act deals with criminal actions committed by youths aged 12 to 17, inclusive.
- The Youth Criminal Justice Act was passed in the year 2002, replacing the Young Offender's Act.
- According to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, youths charged with crimes must be informed of their Charter rights.
- The Act stipulates that the parents of a youth charged with a crime be notified as soon as possible.
- Youths thought to be at risk of reoffending, may be placed in foster homes while awaiting trial.
- Young offenders aged 14 to 17 who are charged with violent crimes may have their cases tried in adult court.
- Extra judicial-sanctions programs allow young offenders accused of non-violent crimes to do something to make up for them rather than go through a trial.
- According to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, with certain exceptions, it's forbidden to publish the identities of youths charged with crimes.