Ability of the Youth Justice System and Age of Offenders

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Delinquents between the ages of twelve and seventeen are the focus of the juvenile court system. Youths who interacted with the criminal justice system before the 19th century were treated in a comparable way to adults. However, the establishment of a separate juvenile justice system in Canada was made possible by reforms to the juvenile justice system that came into force in 1908. The idea behind categorizing offenders by age was that younger offenders could be more easily reformed than older ones, and as a result, lenient punishment and care was crucial in ensuring their future as law-abiding citizens. The role of the justice system has also been extensively discussed with many authors opining that retributive justice is ineffective as compared to restorative means. The importance of reforms in the youth justice system is continually looked into by many states. Countries such as the United States have focused on procedural rights and the welfare of the child. In Canada, The Juvenile Delinquents Act of 1908 contained provisions which reformed the youth justice system albeit there are calls for more reforms.

According to Doob and Cesaroni, the youth justice system has had little impact on youth crime (Doob & Cesaroni, 2014). The discussions by the authors form the basis of this research. In this paper, the need for amendments in the preexisting laws in Canada relating to the youth justice system will be addressed in order to argue for inclusion of measures aiming for the reduction and prevention of youth delinquency as well as recognizing the importance of age in the youth justice system. The inability of the youth justice system to effectively reduce youth crime will be critically analyzed. Moreover, the role of age in the discussion concerning youth, crime and the youth justice system will be discussed in order to show the need for amendments in this sector. Lastly, the amendments to the Juvenile Delinquents Act which would significantly impact on the rate of juvenile delinquency in the Canadian society will be discussed.

The inability of the Canadian youth justice system to effectively reduce youth crime

Youth crime and the youth justice system have been distinguished as different phenomena which should be understood separately in the legal regime. According to Doob and Cesaroni, the use of the youth justice system in order to prevent youth crime is ineffective because the underlying reasons why youths commit crime are not tackled. The justice system is reactionary and as such, does not tackle the underlying issues in society which make it easy for young people to engage in criminal ventures. It is also important to note that the youth justice system concerns itself with reported criminal activities and as such, ignores those that are undetected or unreported. Crime among young people is caused by a variety of factors including: experimentation, peer pressure and the lack of basic needs. Juvenile offenders who are caught and subjected to the youth justice system are considered as the basis upon which the system interrogates and determines the reforms that should be applied to prevent crime.

Dobb and Cesaroni propound the idea that there is a need for the youth justice system to address the realities behind youth crime. The role of the justice system is not merely retributive but should also focus on restorative justice which would work better in the case of young offenders. Delinquent offenders can be easily deterred from engagement in crime compared to adults. There have been some attempts to recognize the reasons behind youth crime such as proportional sentencing which was introduced by the 1984 Canadian Young Offenders Act. However, the majority of amendments to the Young Offenders Acts were focused on the introduction of harsher penalties for some crimes such as five years for murder as opposed to three. The imposition of harsher penalties was driven by the concerns in public debate that the reforms in the youth justice system were inefficient in deterring juvenile offenders from engaging in criminal ventures.

The 2003 Young Criminal Justice Act however attempted to reform the focus on crime prevention through harsh penalties. The Act took is credited for its focus on proportionality in the issuing of sentences in order to reflect the type of crime committed and the use of rehabilitation to tackle the reasons behind juvenile crime. However, such reforms are more discretionary as opposed to concrete dependable provisions. As such, young offenders cannot have a legitimate expectation of the manner in which they will be treated in the juvenile justice system by the police or the courts. The police for example, determine which young offenders they charge with crimes and which ones they let go with warnings. The result is that the cases of reported juvenile offences do not reflect the actual reality thereby leading to stricter penalties based on gender, for example, because male juveniles are dealt with more harshly than their female counterparts thereby leading to larger numbers of charged criminal offenders. The high number of male youths who are charged subsequently creates the impression that male children are more prone to criminal activities and they are therefore dealt with more harshly when it comes to the arbitrary proportionality sentencing.

The issue of age in the youth justice system

The issue of age has been a central focus of the youth justice system with the need for reforms in the age at which juvenile offenders can be charged taking precedence. In Canada, the Juvenile Delinquents Act allowed for children as young as seven years old to be charged for their criminal activities (Casavant, MacKay, & Valiquet, 2012). The arraignment of young children in court is excessive in light of the psychological disposition of seven year olds. Such children, who are still under the care and direction of their parents lack complete independence to be wholly blamed for the manner in which they act. The expectations of the society and the values espoused before young children also vary within the society and as such, it is unfair to judge children based on an objective standard when they lack maturity to independently make their decisions (Carrington, 2001). Parents should be responsible for caring for children who are that young and in watching them so as to prevent their engagement in criminal activities. In some instances where children engage in criminal activities at such a young age, they may not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions and as such, their subjection to the youth justice system has little impact in rehabilitating them. Children at the age of seven years are continually developing their character, personality and value system and may need more input from the family unit rather than the rehabilitation programs in the youth justice system which exposes them to older youth offenders who may guide them in the wrong way.

Reforms in the youth justice system noted the inability of children at the age of seven to appreciate the consequences of their actions thus resulting in the amendments that were introduced by the 1984 Youth Justice Criminal Justice Act (Doob & Cesaroni, 2014). The Act introduced a reform which increased the age at which criminal offenders could be subjected to the justice system from seven to twelve. Although youths get more exposed to acts and criteria leading to convictions of criminal offences as they grow older (Carrington, 2001), at age twelve they still lack independence in decision making. Children at the age of twelve succumb to peer-pressure because their value system shifts from the home or family front to their peers. Children are more likely to be influenced by other children and although they bear some measure of responsibility for their actions, their independence of thought and action can be subdued by their need to belong. Juvenile offenders at the age of twelve are also affected by biological factors wherein their experience at puberty may lead them to inexplicable activities or defiance. However, the puberty stage does not last forever but fazes out as the child grows older. The subjection of young offenders to prosecution in the youth justice system would be akin to promoting punishment for temporary behavior. The retributive mechanisms of ensuring justice would thereby see many juvenile offenders incarcerated in reform schools for rebellious or mischievous behavior during puberty which do not necessarily culminate in their persona at adulthood. Restorative justice would have better results at the age of twelve as opposed to retributive justice. Restorative justice does not have to be effected through the court system but can be monitored by a learning institution or parents of a child. And example is in the case of a twelve year old who breaks into a community swimming pool in order to swim after the closure of the premise. Instead of bringing charges against such a child, it would be more effective to enable them understand the consequences of such behavior that lead to their deterrence. Restorative justice could include the mending of a fence which they could have destroyed in order to gain access to the community pool.

The social and mental growth of individuals which determine their ability to assess the regulations, laws and consequences differ among individuals (Pitts, 2009). Although ignorance of the law is not a defence, it is important to assess whether children at the age of twelve can appreciate the laws which they would be subjected to in case of engagement in juvenile offences. Many children at the age of twelve lack an understanding of the legal consequences for most activities they engage in. In fact, many of them would be more fearful and easily deterred by the chastisement of persons in authority within the society such as their parents or teachers as opposed to the youth justice system. It is therefore important that young people at such an age are subjected to the most effective means of preventing future crime which is through their social networks rather than the use of extreme measures such as the youth justice system. It is essential that the age at which juvenile offenders are subjected to court proceedings be increased to age sixteen as opposed to twelve. At age sixteen, children are more likely to understand the consequences of their actions and to have also developed independence in thinking and personality which would affect their rate of involvement in criminal activities.

Amendments that should be reflected in the youth justice system laws and regulations

In order to understand the essential reforms to the youth justice system, it is necessary to understand the statistics on juvenile offending cases. In 2014, the number of youth accused of crimes were 94,100 in Canada (Boyce, 2015). The number is derived from the number of both those who were charged and the young offenders who were removed from the formal justice system before they were arraigned in court. Although the study shows that there is a steady decline through the years on the number of young people who are criminal offenders, authors argue that such historical comparisons have no significance in the youth justice system. The more important aspects that ought to be addressed relate to the age at which offenders can be formally charged; the balance of redistributive justice and restorative justice; clarity in police discretion concerning juvenile offenders; the balance of child welfare and proportionality in sentencing and equality in the treatment of offenders based on gender.

Redistributive justice should be of utmost concern in the criminal justice system because it best promotes the welfare of the child. Although the youth justice system continually delineates from the focus on the welfare of the delinquent and more on the proportionality in sentencing based on the facts surrounding the commission of the offence, there are other means by which the role of the justice system can be implemented. The welfare of the child should remain paramount because their rehabilitation is the focus of the justice system as opposed to punishment. In all cases, the law should have provisions that promote alternative means of dispute resolution in the case of juveniles who participate in criminal activities. The role of the entire community should be reiterated in the law in order to ensure that every stakeholder is engaged in the rehabilitation or prevention of crime. Parents should be involved in the restorative justice mechanisms while schools and the police should focus on the proper education of young offenders in order to enable them to appreciate the nature and consequences of the criminal activities they may engage in. Redistributive justice should be meted out in a manner in which the best interest of the child is upheld, for example, through use of the experiences as opportunities to learn. In the case of bullying, for example; the child should be psychologically assessed in order to determine whether there are underlying behaviors or tendencies which can be remedied at the young age in order to prevent assault and other destructive behavior as an adult.

More amendments are required in relation to the discretion currently allowed for police in the determination of whether to formally charge a young offender or not. In most cases, there is inequality in the treatment of juvenile offenders by police and other security agencies. Juvenile offenders who are acquainted to security officers have better chances at avoiding formal charges as opposed to those who do not. Moreover, there are stereotypes in the society which are continually enhanced in criminal justice system practice. An example is the high rate of incarceration of black offenders in the United States. The trend is encouraged by the perceptions by security officers that black persons are a greater security threat than their white counterparts. Such a view, however untrue leads to more arrests and formal charges brought against young black offenders. It is important that there are regulations governing the manner in which such police discretion is carried out; for example, mandatory reporting of cases in which police had to practice discretion when handling juvenile offenders thereby leading to a decision not to file a formal complaint. Such reports can enable deeper analysis into the gender issues surrounding police discretion in the youth justice system.


The importance of amendments to the youth justice system to reform the age at which criminal responsibility is attributed to juvenile offenders cannot be understated. The age at which young offenders should be charged should be sixteen years as opposed to twelve years. By sixteen, youth learn to be independent in their decision making as well as developing a value system which is developed through interactions with a broad range of members of the society as opposed to family members or peers alone. At age sixteen, young offenders can also be assumed to appreciate the effects that result from their criminal activities. The reform system which youth offenders are subjected to should also be considerate of the ages of offenders. It is important that such offenders are separated based on age in order to distinguish the different methods that work on different age groups based on their needs at the particular age. The youth justice system in Canada is in need of more amendments in order to promote a reformative system for youth offenders which is centered on fair redistributive justice. Harshness of penalty should not be used as a means of deterrence of crime among youth but rather, the youth justice system should acknowledge the reasons behind such criminal activities.


Boyce, J. (2015). Police Reported Crime Statistics in Canada. Ottawa: Juristat: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

Carrington, P. J. (2001). Population Aging and Crime in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology , 331-356.

Casavant, L., MacKay, R., & Valiquet, D. (2012, 11 21). Youth Justice Legislation in Canada. Retrieved 25 11, 2017, from Parliament of Canada: https://lop.parl.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2008-23-e.pdf

Doob, A., & Cesaroni, C. (2014). Responding to Youth Crime in Canada . Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pitts, J. (2009). Reluctant Gangsters: The Changing Face of Youth Crime. The Britis Journal of Criminology, 49(4) , 597-599.

July 07, 2023

Crime World



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