SECTION 1 – THE YOUTH CRIMINAL JUSTICE ACT
In Canada there is a separate justice system for youth between the ages of 12 and 18. This youth justice system is regulated by the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), federal legislation which came into effect on April 1, 2003 and replaced the Young Offenders Act (YOA). The YCJA applies to federal offences as outlined in the Criminal Code of Canada. This means that if a young person breaks a law as outlined in the Criminal Code of Canada, they are dealt with based on the YCJA.
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The YCJA contains both a Preamble and a Declaration of Principle to clarify the principles and objectives of the youth justice system. The Preamble, while not legally enforceable, contains significant statements from parliament about the values on which the legislation is based. These statements can be used to help interpret the legislation and include:
- Society has a responsibility to address the developmental challenges and needs of young persons.
- Communities and families should work in partnership with others to prevent youth crime by addressing its underlying causes, responding to the needs of young persons and providing guidance and support.
- Accurate information about youth crime, the youth justice system and effective measures should be publicly available.
- Young persons have rights and freedoms, including those set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- The youth justice system should take account of the interests of victims and ensure accountability through meaningful consequences and rehabilitation and reintegration.
- The youth justice system should reserve its most serious interventions for the most serious crimes and reduce the over-reliance on incarceration.
The Declaration of Principle sets out the policy framework for the interpretation of the legislation. Unlike the YOA, the YCJA provides guidance on the priority that is to be given to key principles. For example, the new legislation makes clear that the nature of the system’s response to an offence should reflect the needs and individual circumstances of a young person. However, the needs or social welfare problems of a young person should not result in longer or more severe penalties than what is fair and proportionate to the seriousness of the offence committed. The Declaration of Principle provides that:
- The objectives of the youth justice system are to prevent crime; rehabilitate and reintegrate young persons into society; and ensure meaningful consequences for offences. In these ways, the system can contribute to the long-term protection of society.
- The youth justice system must reflect the fact that young persons lack the maturity of adults. The youth system is different from the adult system in many respects, including: 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 recognized.
- Young persons are to be held accountable through interventions that are fair and in proportion to the seriousness of the offence.
- Within the limits of fair and proportionate accountability, interventions should reinforce respect for societal values, encourage the repair of harm done, be meaningful to the young person, respect gender, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences and respond to the needs of Aboriginal young persons and of young persons with special requirements.
- Youth justice proceedings require special guarantees to protect the rights of young people; courtesy, compassion and respect for victims; the opportunity for victims to be informed and to participate; and that parents be informed and encouraged to participate in addressing the young person’s offending behaviour.
The philosophy underlying the YCJA reflects some of the principles of “restorative justice.” Restorative justice represents a relatively new approach to addressing crime, which takes a holistic look at the origin and effects of crime and the community. Crime is seen as an act against the community, and restorative justice seeks to address the causes of crime, repair the harm caused to all parties affected, and build safer communities. This is done by:
- Holding offenders accountable for their criminal behaviour
- Taking a holistic view of crime: looking at crime in the context/community in which it occurs
- Involving offenders, victims, and the community in addressing the causes and effects of crime
- Providing offenders with support to assist them in repairing the harm caused by their actions
- Giving offenders resources and alternatives to criminal behaviour
The YCJA emphasizes the involvement of the community in addressing youth crime. Ideally, community involvement in the justice system allows for:
- Offender accountability – One of the main principles of community involvement is the idea that in order to achieve reconciliation, offenders must accept responsibility for their actions in the presence of community members. With the support of the community, offenders are held accountable to those who are affected by their actions, i.e. the victim and/or the entire community.
- Attention paid to victim’s needs – While alternative methods of dealing with youth crime focus largely on the offender (for example, retributive justice focuses on punishing the offender while rehabilitative justice focuses on treating the offender); the principles of community involvement under the YCJA emphasize the inclusion of victims’ interests. Special attention is given to the needs of victims, including their right to be informed of the process. When appropriate, victims are also given the opportunity to participate in the process. Victims may be given an opportunity to express how they have been affected by the crime. In some circumstances, victims may also be given the chance to have a say in what reparations the offender should make. However, the involvement of victims only takes place when they are willing and where their involvement will not cause further harm to those involved. While the YCJA encourages victim involvement, it is not always appropriate for victims to be directly involved in the justice process.
- Community empowerment – Community empowerment includes giving the community the authority to seek repair for the harm that was caused when the young person committed the offence (such as fear of crime and mistrust in young people). Those who are affected by the offence are given the opportunity to express how the behaviour should be addressed. Through this process, the bond between offenders and the community is strengthened.