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Topical Information for Parliamentarians

Youth Criminal Justice Act

August 5, 2004

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) received Royal Assent in February 2002 and came into force on 1 April 2003, replacing the former Young Offenders Act (YOA). It was intended to respond to conflicting criticism: that courts and custody were used too often for certain young offenders, and that criminal legislation was not tough enough on others.

Brief Legislative History

  • 1908 – The Juvenile Delinquents Act comes into force, characterized by a child welfare approach, informal procedures and judicial discretion with respect to young offenders.
  • 1984 – The YOA comes into force, with greater emphasis on youth responsibility, protection of society, and the rights and needs of young persons.
  • 1986, 1992 and 1995 – The YOA undergoes amendments, such as increasing maximum sentences for murder and facilitating transfers to adult court for serious violent offences.
  • April 1997 – The House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs issues Renewing Youth Justice following its comprehensive review of the YOA.
  • May 1998 – Justice Canada launches its Strategy for the Renewal of Youth Justice.
  • 1999 to 2002 – Bills to amend the YOA are introduced and debated in Parliament.
  • April 2003 – The YCJA comes into force, replacing the YOA.

Principles of the YCJA

The preamble to the YCJA contains the following five guiding principles:

  • societal responsibility for the developmental challenges of young persons;
  • community and family involvement in the prevention of youth crime;
  • publicly available information about the youth justice system and its measures;
  • accountability to victims through meaningful consequences, effective rehabilitation and reintegration; reservation of serious interventions for serious crimes, and less reliance on incarceration for non-violent young persons.

Extra-Judicial Measures and Sanctions

The YCJA deals with less serious offences outside the court process and presumes that extrajudicial (alternative) measures or sanctions are adequate for a first-time, non-violent offence. These measures and sanctions include:

  • a warning from police;
  • a more formal caution, such as a letter to the youth and his or her parents;
  • a referral to a community program or agency;
  • reparation of damage caused to the victim;
  • community service.

Extrajudicial measures or sanctions may not be used if the young person does not accept responsibility for the offence, or the police or Crown believes that they would not respond to the needs of the young person or the interests of society.

Judicial Measures and Sentencing

Should a youth matter proceed to court, the YCJA requires the punishment to be in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the young person, and never greater than what an adult would receive for the same offence in similar circumstances. The YCJA adds the possibility of convening a conference of family or community members to make sentencing recommendations, or provide input into other decisions by the police, prosecutor or court.

Like the YOA, the YCJA allows a court to order an absolute or conditional discharge, restitution or compensation, community service, probation and a fine (up to $1,000). New youth sentencing options under the YCJA include:

  • a reprimand from the judge;
  • an intensive support and supervision order (like a probation order but with closer monitoring and support);
  • an attendance order (for a non-residential program);
  • a deferred custody and supervision order (a suspended sentence served in the community under conditions);
  • an intensive rehabilitative custody and supervision order (an individualized treatment plan for a young person who has committed murder, aggravated sexual assault or some other serious violent offence and who is suffering from a mental or psychological disorder or an emotional disturbance).

Custody and Maximum Sentences

Custodial sentences under the YCJA are reserved for young persons who have committed certain serious, violent or repeat offences, or failed to comply with non-custodial sentences in the past. All reasonable alternatives to custody must first be considered. Unless an adult sentence is appropriate due to the severity of the offence, the maximum sentences for a young person under the YCJA (with little change from the YOA) are:

  • 10 years for first degree murder (6 years in custody; 4 years in the community);
  • 7 years for second degree murder (4 years in custody; 3 years in the community);

  • 3 years for an offence that could result in up to life imprisonment for an adult;
  • 3 years for certain presumptive serious offences (e.g., attempted murder, aggravated assault and other serious violent offences);
  • 2 years for most other offences.

A young person is entitled to serve part of his or her sentence in the community under conditions, unless a court decides that continued custody is necessary to prevent death or serious harm to another person. Consecutive sentences are possible for multiple offences.

Adult Sentences and Adult Facilities

The transfer of a young person to adult court has been eliminated under the YCJA. Instead, an adult sentence may be imposed for certain presumptive serious offences, or on application by the Crown, if the court believes that a youth sentence would not be sufficient. Whereas the YOA permitted a 16- or 17-year-old to be transferred to adult court, the YCJA permits someone 14 years of age or older to receive an adult sentence, although the provinces and territories may raise that threshold to age 15 or 16.

The YCJA presumes that a person under 18 at the time of sentencing should serve his or her sentence in a youth facility and that a person aged 18 or over should serve it in an adult facility. Variations are permitted if the court imposes an adult sentence or concludes that placement in a particular facility would be in the interests of the young person or protect the safety of others. There is a stronger presumption that a youth should be placed in or transferred to an adult facility at age 20.

Constitutional and Charter Issues

The YCJA was adopted by Parliament under its criminal law power and is primarily administered by the provinces and territories under their jurisdiction over the administration of justice. In Reference re: Bill C-7 respecting the criminal justice system for young persons, the Province of Quebec referred the constitutionality of certain provisions of the YCJA to the Quebec Court of Appeal. In March 2003, the Court confirmed that the YCJA is valid criminal legislation within federal jurisdiction.

However, the Quebec Court of Appeal struck down provisions of the YCJA that, in its opinion, unjustifiably violated a young person’s liberty under section 7 of the Charter. These concern a presumption in favour of an adult sentence and a presumption against a publication ban where a young person commits particular serious offences, unless he or she establishes otherwise. The Court concluded that the burden of justifying a youth sentence or a publication ban should not rest with the young accused.

The federal government did not appeal the Quebec Court of Appeal decision and has indicated that it will introduce possible amendments to the YCJA after consultation with the provinces and territories.


Prepared by
Wade Raaflaub, Analyst
in collaboration with Janet Shute-Taylor, Reference Librarian
Parliamentary Information and Research Service

For Further Reference

Website of the Department of Justice Canada, Programs and Services, Youth Justice Renewal.

Goetz, David. Bill C-7: the Youth Criminal Justice Act, LS-385E, Parliamentary Research Branch, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Revised 14 December 2001.

Bala, Nicholas, ed.. Youth Criminal Justice Law (Toronto: Irwin Law Inc., 2003), 613 pp.

Roberts, Julian V. and Bala, Nicholas. “Understanding Sentencing Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act” (Sept. 2003) 41 Alberta Law Review 395-423.

Anand, Sanjeev and and Bala, Nicholas . “'The Quebec Court of Appeal Youth Justice Reference: Striking Down the Toughest Part of the New Act” (2003) 10 Criminal Reports 397-418.

Robinson, Paul. Youth Court Statistics, 2002/03, Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, March 2004.

Marinelli, Julie. Youth Custody and Community Services in Canada, 2001/02, Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, March 2004.

Latimer, Jeff, Dowden, Craig and Morton-Bourgon, Kelly E. Treating Youth in Conflict with the Law: A New Meta-Analysis, Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division, April 2003.

For United States statistics, see Sickmund, Melissa. “Juveniles in Corrections”, Juvenile Offenders and Victims National Report Series, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, June 2004.

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