Youth Offenders – Principles of the YCJA

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) governs Canada’s youth justice system, creating unique procedures for young people aged 12-17 who are in trouble with the law.[1] In addition to creating a separate youth court system, it sets out guidelines for imposing alternative resolutions outside of the court process, appropriate sentencing for young offenders, and enhanced privacy for young people in the system.

Principles and Values of the YCJA

The YJCA is intended to create an approach to youth justice that is responsive to the unique needs of youth. It acknowledges that while youth should be held accountable for their actions, proportionate responses must account for the circumstances surrounding the offence and the maturity of the young person.[2] Sanctions are targeted primarily at rehabilitation and reintegration, aiming to minimize the detrimental effect on young people while still protecting society. The YCJA emphasizes timely responses that address the circumstances underlying criminal behaviour, providing for sanctions that reinforce respect for societal values, encourage the repair of harm caused, and integrate the young person with larger social networks.[3]

Extrajudicial Measures

One means by which the YCJA promotes rehabilitation and reintegration is through the use of extrajudicial measures (EJMs), which are measures taken outside of the court process. EJMs are used at the discretion of the police or Crown where they are deemed adequate to hold the young person accountable for their offending behaviour, thereby providing a more proportionate response than formal judicial proceedings.[4] They are presumed to be adequate where the young person has committed a non-violent offence and has not previously been found guilty of an offence, although a previous finding of guilt or EJM does not preclude their use.[5]

Police officers are required to consider using EJMs before charging a young person, including:[6]

  • Taking no further action;
  • Informal warnings;
  • Referring the youth to a community program or agency to help youth avoid committing offences;
  • Administering a police caution, where authorized. This is a more formal warning typically involving a letter from the police to the young person and their parents and sometimes requiring them to appear at a police station to discuss the incident.

Crown prosecutors may also administer cautions instead of laying charges once the police have referred the case to them.

Extrajudicial Sanctions

Extrajudicial Sanctions (EJSs) are the most formal type of EJM, used only where other forms of EJM would be insufficient. Unlike other EJMs, EJSs may be imposed before or after charges are laid. Examples include volunteering, compensating the victim of the criminal behaviour, or attending specialized programs. The Crown must believe there is a reasonable prospect of prosecuting the behaviour to impose an EJS, and failure to complete an EJS may result in formal judicial proceedings.[7]

Due to the potential consequences of failing to comply with an EJM, certain preconditions must be satisfied to impose them. Among others, the young person must give consent to the use of the sanction and be informed of their right to speak with a lawyer before doing so.[8] Their parents must be notified of the sanction.[9] The young person must also admit their responsibility for the act or omission forming the basis of the offence, although this is not considered an admission of guilt.[10]

Youth Sentencing

The purpose of sentencing under the YCJA “is to hold a young person accountable for an offence through the imposition of just sanctions that have meaningful consequences for the young person and that promote his or her rehabilitation and reintegration into society, thereby contributing to the long-term protection of the public.”[11] To achieve this purpose, the YCJA also dictates that a sentence must:[12]

  • not be more severe than what an adult would receive for the same offence;
  • be similar to youth sentences in similar cases;
  • be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the young person;
  • within the limits of a proportionate response, (a) be the least restrictive alternative, (b) be the sentencing option that is most likely to rehabilitate and reintegrate the young person, and (c) promote in the young person a sense of responsibility and an acknowledgement of the harm done by the offence.

A range of alternative measures are available to sentencing judges in youth court, including fines, restitution, community service, personal services to the victim, and attending rehabilitative programs.[13] Custody is reserved primarily for violent offenders and serious repeat offenders and is always followed by a period of supervised reintegration into the community.[14] Sentences are often split between time in a youth custody facility and under community supervision to facilitate better rehabilitation. Youth custodial sentences are also shorter than those for adults, with a maximum length of 10 years.

Youth Courts may impose adult sentences for “serious violent offences” including murder, manslaughter, and aggravated sexual assault committed when a youth was at least 14 years old.[15] A court may only impose an adult sentence where the prosecution has rebutted the presumption that the young person has diminished moral blameworthiness and a youth sentence would be insufficient to hold the young person accountable.[16] In these cases, the Criminal Code penalties for adult penalties apply, including mandatory minimum penalties and sentences up to life imprisonment.


To facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of young offenders, the YCJA also contains provisions that prevent the publication of information that would identify a young person dealt with under the act.[17] However, there are exceptions. Firstly, identifying information may be published about young people receiving an adult sentence.[18] Information may also be publicized in the course of the administration of justice, provided that it is not the purpose of the publication to make the information known to the community.[19] Lastly, in rare cases, permission to publicize the identity of a young person who has committed a serious offence may be granted for a short time if there is reason to believe that they are a danger to others and publication is necessary to assist in apprehending them.[20]

Similarly, access to records of youth matters is highly restricted. Limited access may be permitted within a finite period to specific classes of individuals – primarily government officials, officers of the court, and people directly involved with the offence. The length of the access period is determined by how the matter was resolved.[21] Access may rarely be granted to these classes of people outside of the access period with special permission of a youth court judge.[22] Once the access period ends, youth records are sealed and/or destroyed. However, if someone over the age of 18 with an open youth record commits another crime, the youth record will become part of that person’s adult record.[23]


[1] Children under 12 cannot be charged with an offence under the criminal code or YCJA. Instead, discretionary measures are taken such as involving parents or child services.

[2] YCJA s.3(1)(b).

[3] YCJA ss.3(1)(b, c).

[4] YCJA s.4(d).

[5] YCJA ss.4(c, d).

[6] YCJA s.6(1).

[7] YCJA ss.10(1, 5).

[8] YCJA ss.10(2)(c, d).

[9] YCJA s.10(11).

[10] YCJA s.10(2)(e); s.10(4).

[11] YCJA s.38(1).

[12] Ibid, s.38(2).

[13] Ibid, s.42(2).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, s.64(1).

[16] Ibid, s.72(1).

[17] Ibid, s.110(1)

[18] Ibid, s.110(2)

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, s.110(4).

[21] Ibid, ss.119(1, 2)

[22] Ibid, s.123(1).

[23] Ibid, s.120(6).

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