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Tom Rees | Criminal Defence Lawyer Winnipeg

Purposes and Principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) is the legislation that defines Canada’s role in youth crime and justice. The YCJA sets out it’s principles in a Pre-Amble and in Section 3, the purposes and principles of the Act. Section 3 is lengthy, so I’ve broken it down into smaller sections to discuss the implications of this section on the interpretation of the YCJA in general.

Section 3 starts by stating that the principles of this section apply to the whole act, meaning that the principles and purposes listed provide the lens through which the entire act should interpreted.

 (1) The following principles apply in this Act:

  • (a) the youth criminal justice system is intended to protect the public by

    • (i) holding young persons accountable through measures that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the young person,

    • (ii) promoting the rehabilitation and reintegration of young persons who have committed offences, and

    • (iii) supporting the prevention of crime by referring young persons to programs or agencies in the community to address the circumstances underlying their offending behaviour;

Subsection (a) is about the protection of the public. The YCJA should ultimately protect the public using the means listed. The first is holding the young person accountable, keeping in mind that measures taken should be proportionate and consider the circumstances of the young person and the offence. The second measure is rehabilitating the young person. The third measure is related to the second, except that it is limited to referring young people to community programs or agencies.

It’s interesting that the closure of community programs for young people is in the news in Winnipeg right now because the decisions Mayor Bowman and the City Counsel make about those programs directly affect the implementation of youth justice in the city.

  • (b) the criminal justice system for young persons must be separate from that of adults, must be based on the principle of diminished moral blameworthiness or culpability and must emphasize the following:

    • (i) rehabilitation and reintegration,

    • (ii) fair and proportionate accountability that is consistent with the greater dependency of young persons and their reduced level of maturity,

    • (iii) enhanced procedural protection to ensure that young persons are treated fairly and that their rights, including their right to privacy, are protected,

    • (iv) timely intervention that reinforces the link between the offending behaviour and its consequences, and

    • (v) the promptness and speed with which persons responsible for enforcing this Act must act, given young persons’ perception of time;

Subsection (b) talks about a number of areas. Many are self evident given the wording of the section. It’s important to point out the concept of diminished moral blameworthiness. Young people make decisions differently than adults. They have less experience upon which to make their decisions, and are more compulsive. Their brains are not fully developed and they are less mature. All of these factors should temper and direct the method the Youth Court uses to deal with young people.

This section also emphasizes that young people have a different perception of time than adults and that it is important to deal with youth matters quickly to reinforce the link between the punishment and the offending behaviour. In other words, long delays in court process only work to weaken the link between the crime and punishment.

  • (c) within the limits of fair and proportionate accountability, the measures taken against young persons who commit offences should

    • (i) reinforce respect for societal values,

    • (ii) encourage the repair of harm done to victims and the community,

    • (iii) be meaningful for the individual young person given his or her needs and level of development and, where appropriate, involve the parents, the extended family, the community and social or other agencies in the young person’s rehabilitation and reintegration, and

    • (iv) respect gender, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences and respond to the needs of aboriginal young persons and of young persons with special requirements; and

This section says that the youth justice system must be fair and proportionate. It also tells the Youth Court that measures taken under the act must be meaningful to the individual young person. This means that the Youth Court should not take measures that will not be meaningful or effective for the actual young person before them. What may be effective for some young people may not be for others and the Youth Court must consider that.

  • (d) special considerations apply in respect of proceedings against young persons and, in particular,

    • (i) young persons have rights and freedoms in their own right, such as a right to be heard in the course of and to participate in the processes, other than the decision to prosecute, that lead to decisions that affect them, and young persons have special guarantees of their rights and freedoms,

    • (ii) victims should be treated with courtesy, compassion and respect for their dignity and privacy and should suffer the minimum degree of inconvenience as a result of their involvement with the youth criminal justice system,

    • (iii) victims should be provided with information about the proceedings and given an opportunity to participate and be heard, and

    • (iv) parents should be informed of measures or proceedings involving their children and encouraged to support them in addressing their offending behaviour.

This section reminds the Court that young people have special protections and outlines rights of victims and parents.

Subsection (2) is a very important section, and affects the way the entire YCJA should be interpreted. Again, it forms part of the lens through which the whole YCJA should be read.

(2) This Act shall be liberally construed so as to ensure that young persons are dealt with in accordance with the principles set out in subsection (1).

This section forces the Court return to the fundamental principles of the YCJA. If they make a decision under this Act, they must turn their minds to the purpose and principles outlined in Section 3. If they make a decision that is inconsistent with this Section, they’ve made an error.

This section raises questions for me about whether long jail sentences for young people who’ve committed non-violent crimes are actually legal under YCJA. If a child comes home late for curfew, how many days in jail should it take to have fulfilled the principles set out in Section 3? Young people in Manitoba serve considerable jail terms for breaching their court orders.


*Note: The information on this page is not legal advice. You should obtain legal advice from a lawyer.