Youth Justice

The youth justice system has been developed as distinct from adult justice because young persons lack the maturity of adults, and therefore may need different responses to offending or anti-social behaviour, while still being held accountable. Youth justice and related issues are governed in Canada by federal legislation: the Youth Criminal Justice Act. According to this legislation, the objective of the youth justice system is to protect society through prevention of crime, rehabilitation and reintegration of young offenders, and imposition of meaningful consequences for offending behaviours. The youth justice system aims to achieve accountability for offending behaviour of youth through fair and proportionate responses that reinforce societal values, encourage the repair of harm done, and are respectful of gender, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences, and of the special requirements of youth. Youth justice processes try to balance the rights of young people and victims and to inform and involve offending youth's parents as much as possible.

The provincial government is responsible for administering youth justice legislation and for making sure that youth justice programs and services are available in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Department of Justice prosecutes offenses by youth under the Youth Criminal Justice Act and other statutes, while the Department of Corrections and Public Safety provides programs and services ranging from custody to community services. Other agencies such as health authorities, Aboriginal organizations, and community social service agencies are also involved in providing youth justice services. Police are usually the first agency involved in a youth justice situation. Where the situation warrants, the Crown Prosecutor is involved to determine what charges will proceed against a youth, to direct the matter to youth courts for disposition, or to propose alternatives to a formal court process such as victim/offender mediation. In Saskatchewan, a majority of alternative programs to youth court are delivered by non-government organizations, including Aboriginal organizations under contract with the provincial government. Youth in these “extra-judicial” programs are able to consult a lawyer, and may opt for more formal justice processes at any time.

In mediation, the offending youth and the victim try to come to an agreement to resolve the offense. For example, the youth might agree to do volunteer work for the victim or the community, make restitution, take counseling, or engage in any other activity acceptable to both parties. If the youth successfully completes the agreement, he or she is cleared of any further legal processes related to the offense. Some youth are required to go through a more formal youth court process. In most cases, youth will live in their normal home while the court process is underway. In other cases, youth may be detained or remanded in youth facilities until they make a court appearance. Whether or not a youth is detained depends on factors such as previous criminal involvement and assessment of the likelihood of attending court. Some youth are initially detained, but then are released with intensive supervision and support. If a youth court finds a youth guilty of charges, a youth worker or probation officer may be required to prepare a pre-sentence report that reviews the criminal and social history of the youth as well as any special needs or circumstances. Judges make sentencing decisions based on input from the Crown, the defence, the youth and his or her family, the victim, the community, and youth workers.

A number of possible sentences may be imposed. In minor cases, a reprimand may be considered sufficient. The judge can also order an absolute or conditional discharge, or impose a fine up to $1,000. The court may order the youth to compensate another person for loss, damage or injury, to make restitution to a property owner, to serve up to 240 hours community service, or to suffer other penalties or forfeitures. Additional conditions on behaviour such as probation may be applied with a level of supervision determined on the basis of a risk and needs assessment. A youth may also be required to attend specific programs on conditions set by the judge.

Where custody is ordered, there are two levels available: open custody and secure custody. Open custody is for youth that can be managed in the community. Secure custody is for youth assessed as a potential risk to the community. All custody orders include a period of supervision in the community. Some non-violent offenders who would otherwise be sentenced to custody may be ordered to serve all or part of their sentence in the community, subject to conditions which, if violated, result in custody. A special sentence may be applied by youth courts to serious violent young offenders, where the young person has been found guilty of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, or aggravated sexual assault, has a psychological disorder, or has a pattern of repeated, serious, violent offenses. In these cases an individualized treatment plan will be developed for the young person while in custody.

Because most of the root causes of criminal behaviour lie outside the justice system, the youth criminal justice system itself has only a limited effect on the incidence of youth crime. Research points to background factors frequently associated with offending, such as poor school or work performance, parenting and other family issues, pro-criminal friends and attitudes, substance abuse, and anti-social behaviours. Research into effective interventions in youth justice systems suggests that an increase in punishment alone for young offenders is not effective in reducing criminal behaviour. The most effective way to reduce youth crime is to address the social and behavioral issues that contribute to criminal behaviour. Like other parts of the justice system, youth justice is evolving from a simple correctional response to a system that supports positive change and growth in communities and individuals, and thus helps to reduce the factors leading to criminal behaviour in youth.

Jim McIlmoyl