Significant changes to Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) took effect on October 23, 2012. They were tucked into the massive Omnibus Crime Bill passed last March that dealt largely with adult crime and corrections. The impact of those changes for youth and the provinces may not have been fully assessed as the Bill made its speedy passage through Parliament. Nor did we know then that the impact would be worsened by the Department of Justice’s decision to achieve more than half of its departmental cuts by reducing youth justice funding for supervision and rehabilitation by $35.7 M per year—a staggering amount for youth justice but small change compared to government spending.

With these revisions, Canada’s international reputation on youth justice has plummeted. The 2009 Report by respected United Kingdom researchers Enver Solomon and Rob Allen described Canada’s YCJA as a “shining example of success” for having met its goals of targeting incarceration to the most serious crimes and encouraging community-based accountability for most youth which led to significant reductions in the use of custody while youth crime rates fell. Recently, however, the United Nations has criticized Canada’s recent amendments for violating the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and prominent children’s advocates in Canada have criticized C-10.

More troubling will be the impact of these reforms on Canadian youth and on the longer-term safety of our communities. The principles and provisions of the youth justice system have been reoriented away from proportionate accountability, rehabilitation, and prevention and towards the immediate protection of the public, believed to be achieved through tougher approaches and naming of youth. This imperils both principles of justice and the longer-term protection of the public. Ignoring evidence and principles will lead to far more youth needlessly in custody and worse outcomes.

Not only have youth justice resources been cut despite pleas from youth-serving agencies for more, the legislative reforms remove incentives to use the faster, more effective, and less costly measures outside the formal justice system. The new administrative requirement that police keep records of non-judicial measures and the fact that these measures have the same weight as convictions in subsequent assessments about custody will discourage use. A slew of less serious incidents will be taking up court time.

With more charges likely being processed through the courts, the pressure on remand will increase. The stated purpose of the recent amendments is to make it easier to detain youth in custody prior to their trials. Already more than half the youth behind bars in Canada have not been tried and sentenced.

Once convicted, a youth now faces a different sentencing regime making custody a more likely outcome. Adult sentencing principles of specific deterrence and denunciation are included. The violent offence definition strains the spirit of the Charter-protected youth justice principle of diminished capacity. For a youth, an offence may be considered violent even though it was not violent, was not intended to be violent, but could have resulted in violence. This likely requires foresight beyond current neuroscience’s understanding of the adolescent capacity and will open doors to custody for property offences, which can now be considered violent.

Most regrettable is the apparent loss of belief that young people can commit even serious mistakes, be held accountable for those acts, and go on to make a contribution to their communities by leading crime-free lives. The gratuitous expansion of publicly naming youth who offend is a clear example of wanting to leave an indelible mark on some youth—of having given up on them.

Those of us who want to see a just, effective, and humane youth justice system in Canada should: implement the law in a way that mitigates possible negative consequences; monitor the effect of the new measures to assess impacts; and contribute to future opportunities for youth justice law reform. This is not the time to give up on our youth or on our principles and values.

— Catherine Latimer

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