Concerns about the Current Youth Justice System
Canadians had made it clear to their members of Parliament that Canada's youth justice system needed renewing. In response, the Department launched the Youth Justice Renewal Initiative aimed at establishing a fair, effective youth justice system in Canada. The Initiative, supported by the new Youth Criminal Justice Act, focuses on three key objectives: ensuring that young offenders face meaningful consequences; improving the rehabilitation of young offenders; and preventing youth crime. The new law and broader Initiative more accurately reflect current Canadian attitudes on youth justice, and go beyond legislation and the youth justice system to explore how society as a whole can address youth crime and its associated factors.
Concerns about the Current Youth Justice System
-Lack of Public Confidence
In general, the public believes that the Young Offenders Act and youth court judges are too lenient, and questions the ability of the youth justice system to provide meaningful penalties proportionate to the seriousness of offences. The criticism of sentencing practices seems to be widespread, even though most judges dealing with youth are the same as those who hear adult cases and despite the fact that Canadian youth incarceration rates are higher than those of other countries and higher than incarceration rates for adults.
The youth justice system is criticized for being too late in responding to the problems of youth. Many young offenders demonstrate a clear pattern of disruptive behaviour before they actually commit crimes. This reinforces the importance of early intervention to address underlying problems, which could help protect the public from crime and prevent children at risk from pursuing lives of crime.
-Need for Effective Alternatives to Incarceration
Many sentences other than custody provide meaningful consequences for youth crime. Custody, in some cases, is simply used as a place where youth mark time and develop into more seasoned and sophisticated criminals. Alternatives that require young people to repay victims and society for the harm done teach responsibility and respect for others and reinforce social values.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs heard evidence that the rate of youth incarceration in Canada is much higher than that of many other western countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand. There is also considerable variation within Canada, with incarceration rates three to four times higher in some provinces than in others but without comparable variations in crime rates.
The high rates of youth incarceration may in part reflect a shortage of effective non-custodial sentencing options or their relatively infrequent use. Many criminal justice professionals and members of the public favour restricting custody to the most violent and persistent offenders and using the savings on more effective alternatives for non-violent, low-risk youth.
-Inability to Deal with Violent and Repeat Offenders
The public questions the capacity of the youth justice system to deal effectively with violent youth crime. Many question whether the range of penalties available to the youth court is sufficient to hold youth accountable for repeat violent offences and to deter others. These reservations concerning the most violent offenders, whose acts are often widely publicized, can taint the public's confidence in the youth justice system as a whole.
-Need for a Common Vision
Some argue that the principles set out in the Young Offenders Act compete with one another and that the priorities are unclear - obscuring the purposes and objectives of the youth justice system. While there is a substantial consensus on the need for enhanced crime prevention efforts and meaningful alternatives for non-violent offenders, there is less clarity on the fundamental objectives of the system and how the public is best protected.
-Role of Parents, Family and Victims
The youth justice system has been criticized by some for intimidating and excluding parents and extended family. Others believe that parents should be required to assume greater responsibility for their children. The system has also been criticized for not recognizing the interests and needs of victims. The roles for parents and victims in the youth justice process must be more clearly defined.
-Time for Renewal
Now is the time to renew the youth justice system. The federal, provincial and territorial governments have identified children and youth as priorities; the Premiers have encouraged meaningful legislative amendments and pledged co-operation on key elements of youth justice; the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force, the Standing Committee and others have made thoughtful recommendations.
Developing a fair and effective youth justice system that protects the public and encourages youth to become law-abiding adults is a challenge for all Canadians and all levels of government. Canadians share a commitment to certain fundamental principles in this area: safe communities; fair and effective justice systems; and the healthy development of children and youth. By working together, differences can be bridged to achieve a youth justice system consistent with our shared values and objectives.
Now is the time to adopt a multifaceted, co-operative strategy for the renewal of youth justice to protect the public. Statutory reforms should ensure that youth experience meaningful consequences for their crimes, but efforts must also be made to improve the chances of successful rehabilitation and reintegration of youth as constructive members of their communities.
Legislation alone, however, is not enough to address youth crime, and the proposed changes to our youth justice legislation represent only one part of our comprehensive renewal of youth justice. The multifaceted approach set out in this document will also provide immediate and longer-term responses to youth crime by building links to community-based youth crime prevention programs and to initiatives that address the root causes of criminal behaviour.
The renewal of youth justice is both a great challenge and an opportunity to realize shared objectives for justice and youth.
-The goal of youth justice renewal is to reduce youth crime through three complementary strategies:
1. Prevention and Meaningful Alternatives
The best way to deal with youth crime is to prevent it - through community-based crime prevention and by addressing the social conditions associated with the root causes of delinquency.
A number of alternatives to the formal justice system can be employed effectively to deal with the majority of non-violent young offenders - such as family-group conferencing, diversion programs and police cautioning. These alternative approaches hold youth accountable for their behaviour, acknowledge and repair the harm caused to the victim and the community and help to instil or reinforce values such as responsibility and respect for others.
2. Meaningful Consequences for Youth Crime
Young people who commit crimes will be held responsible and accountable for their actions.
3. Rehabilitation and Reintegration
The youth justice system is partly premised on the belief that the vast majority of young offenders, with proper guidance and support, can overcome past criminal behaviour and develop into law-abiding citizens.
-Key Preventive Components
Communities themselves are in the best position to assess the unique challenges facing their children and youth. The government has committed $32 million per year to support the development of community-based crime prevention and to help communities throughout Canada to identify the needs of young people and others and to devise programs and partnerships to prevent and reduce crime.