The Youth Criminal Justice Act is Canada’s law that applies to youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who have come into conflict with the law.

The following material is drawn from Justice Canada’s "Summary and Background" to the YCJA.

On February 4, 2002, the House of Commons passed Bill C-7, the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA). The new law replaces the Young Offenders Act (YOA), and is in force as of April 1, 2003, following a period of preparation for its implementation. The YCJA builds on the strengths of the YOA and introduces significant reforms that address its weaknesses. The YCJA provides the legislative framework for a fairer and more effective youth justice system.

The introduction of the bill followed an extensive period of review and consultation, much of which is reflected in the following reports:

  • A Review of the Young Offenders Act and the Youth Justice System in Canada, report of the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice (1996)
  • Renewing Youth Justice, report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (1997)
  • A Strategy for the Renewal of Youth Justice, Department of Justice Canada (1998)

In March of 1999, Bill C-68, the first version of the YCJA, was introduced. Parliament prorogued in June and the bill was reintroduced as Bill C-3, in October 1999. The bill proceeded through second reading and the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights held hearings on the bill. Prior to third reading, the federal election was called for November 27, 2000 and the bill was delayed. Bill C-7 was introduced in February 2001 and includes over 160 amendments that respond to suggestions and concerns raised in relation to C-3.

The Need for New Youth Justice Legislation

There have been many concerns in Canada about the Young Offenders Act and the youth justice system. Some of these concerns have been based on misperceptions about youth crime, the legislation and how the system operates. Some concerns have been based on a misunderstanding of the limits of legislation and unreasonable expectations about what legislation can accomplish.

It is sometimes argued that new legislation is not needed, that the YOA is not flawed and that if problems exist, they are the result of inappropriate implementation. This position fails to take account of 17 years of experience that indicate that the YOA does not provide clear legislative direction to guide appropriate implementation in several areas. The absence of clear legislative direction is an important factor, although not the only factor, that has contributed to the problems in the youth justice system.

The Preamble and Declaration of Principles

The Youth Criminal Justice Act contains both a preamble and a declaration of principles 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 the following:

  • 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 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 full text of the Youth Criminal Justice Act can be found at the Justice Canada website.