When a young person commits a criminal offence, the Youth Criminal Justice Act applies. In Canada, young people are considered minors until reaching the age of eighteen. Court proceedings can be quite lengthy and the accused may turn eighteen prior to the conclusion of his or her case. In determining whether to charge an offender as a young person or adult, the police and courts look to the age of the individual at the time the crime was committed.
The Youth Criminal Justice Act does not contain a list of offences separate from the Criminal Code. Rather, it sets out the procedures and principles for charging, trying, and sentencing a young person charged with an offence under the Criminal Code. The Youth Criminal Justice Act takes notice of the differences between young persons and adults and is based upon the idea that it is a shared responsibility of society to guide young people into adulthood.
To achieve the goals of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, there are three fundamental principles laid out. The first is to prevent crime by addressing the underlying causes of the young person’s behaviour; the second is to rehabilitate young offenders and assist with their reintegration into society and; the third is to assure that the consequences of committing an offence are meaningful to the young person.
There are many differences between youth and adult criminal processes. The police and Crown prosecutors will often give first time young offenders warnings or cautions instead of subjecting the young person to formal proceedings. Even if a formal proceeding is commenced, Youth Courts look for alternatives to locking up a young person. The court can require community service, alcohol or drug treatment, or other measures to get the young person back on the right track.
Just because the Youth Criminal Justice Act tends to treat young offenders more leniently, that does not mean that serious punishments will never be handed down. Young people can certainly be given custodial sentences. Under certain circumstances, young offenders can be charged and sentenced as adults.
Navigating the Youth Criminal Justice Act requires specialized knowledge of the particular rights and responsibilities that apply. A lawyer who is experienced with the Youth Courts can provide advice and assistance to help make it through this difficult time.