Kids make mistakes. That’s inevitable. These mistakes range from stupid to criminal.
When youths commit crimes, there is a lot of confusion over how these youths are dealt with. This confusion seems to lead to (misplaced) anger and frustration at our justice system.
In response to that public frustration, I write this column, explaining some of the legal issues involved when kids commit crimes.
To begin, the applicable law when dealing with kids/youths who commit crimes is the Youth Criminal Justice Act, S.C. 2002, c. 1. For your information, youths are those under the age of 18. Those who are 18 or over are considered adults.
Youths who commit crimes are subject to different rules (compared to adults). Why? Well, it’s obvious: they’re kids. Here are some of those differences:
When youths are first found committing a crime, police and prosecutors have a responsibility to consider alternative ways (other than criminal court) to help the youth ‘learn his/her lesson’. This could include giving a warning, talking to the youth’s parents, or sending the youth to some rehabilitative/educational program.
Another difference is that a youth, when arrested, is entitled to speak with a lawyer AND with his/her parent/guardian. Statements made by the youth without those rights could be inadmissible in court. Police officers would be wise to follow this rule.
Next, if the child is charged with a crime and taken to court, then the youth is less likely to be kept in custody while awaiting trial (compared to an adult). This makes sense: it is undoubtedly better for the youth’s rehabilitation to be with his/her parents than in jail.
Also, if a youth is taken to court, there will be a ban on the publication of the name of the youth. As well, access to the records of youths is strictly monitored. Obviously, this is important: if a youth’s name is made public, then the mistakes of that youth could affect the rest of his/her life.
Next, if the youth is convicted of a crime, then the youth is less likely to spend time in jail (compared to an adult). See section 38 of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
I recognize that this makes some people angry. Some people want children to sit in jail cells to ‘learn their lesson’ (even for minor offences). But, think about it: very little is gained from sending a child to jail, except potentially ‘hardening’ that child, hurting their chances at rehabilitation. Jail doesn’t always help; it often hurts.
Instead of jail, convicted youths are more likely to be referred to programs that helps educate and rehabilitate them, ensuring that they lead productive and law-abiding lives. Youth sentences can also include the youth financially compensating victims (in vandalism-type cases), writing apology letters, receiving counselling, completing community service, or taking educational programs/courses.
If a youth commits a serious enough crime, like murder or manslaughter, then Crown Counsel could try to have the youth receive an adult sentence (i.e. life in prison). Whether or not an adult sentence is pursued will depend on the circumstances of the crime and on the circumstances of the youth. See section 72 of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
But, with that said, even if the youth is given an adult sentence, the parole eligibility date will be much sooner (compared to an adult offender). For instance, when youths receive (adult) life sentences for murder, parole eligibility for youths is between 5 and 10 years, depending on the age of the child and the nature of the offence. See section 745.1 of the Criminal Code. Also see the following link, explaining parole: Parole explained.
I recognize that the seemingly ‘soft-approach’ to youth crime makes some people very upset. But, to those people: consider that when the ‘soft-approach’ (i.e. the Youth Criminal Justice Act) was introduced in Canada, that there was a 4% drop in police-reported youth crime, a 17% drop in youth court charges, and a 22% drop in youth homicides.
Here’s this week’s final thought: it is inevitable that children will commit crimes. So, ask yourself this: is our community better served by harshly punishing children or helping children get their lives back on track?
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.