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When Kids Make Mistakes - An Overview of the Youth Criminal Justice System
Shawn Swarts
Shawn Swarts

A person cannot be charged with any criminal offence until they are 12 years old. Until then, a person is still considered a “child” and cannot be charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. From ages 12-17, anyone who commits an offence is covered by the youth criminal justice system; from age 18 onwards, the adult system applies. One of the goals of the youth system is to prevent crime by dealing with the circumstances behind a youth’s criminal behaviour and rehabilitate the youth. This is done while also trying to make sure that there are meaningful consequences so that the message gets through that there are repercussions to breaking the law. There are a number of things built into the law around youth justice that allow for options other than court appearances and jail time. First, police officers have to consider whether it is enough to warn or caution a young person, or refer them to a program to help them straighten out. If the police do decide to lay charges, prosecutors have the option of using “extrajudicial sanctions” to deal with the matter, rather than going through the normal process of trial and sentencing. Extrajudicial sanctions can include things like community service, counselling, or making up for damage that was caused to property by the offence. These things are only an option if the young person consents, and if they accept responsibility for their actions. Once the young person finishes all of the requirements of their program, the charges against them are withdrawn. This kind of program makes sure that there are consequences, but at the same time avoids a criminal record. If a charge goes through the court process, there are also different options for sentencing than in the adult system. One thing that stands out in the youth system is that jail time is automatically presumed to be unnecessary unless certain conditions are met. This goes back to the goals of preventing crime by dealing with the circumstances behind the behaviour. Being a youth does not automatically guarantee that an offender won’t go to jail, and there are circumstances when jail will be imposed. These include violent offences, a history of failing to comply with non-jail sentences (like probation, for example), serious offences combined with a pattern of earlier offences and exceptional cases where jail is the only thing that would end up in a just result. The maximum sentences for youth are also lower than the sentences for adults. In extremely serious cases, there is the option of sentencing a youth as an adult. This is the exception, not the rule. It allows for harsher sentences because the youth maximums will not apply. Overall, the goal is to do everything possible to let kids who make mistakes turn themselves around and put their mistakes behind them.