Is our Criminal Justice System Protecting us from Violent Young Offenders?

A look at the Youth Criminal Justice Act and how it handles serious crime

Guest Blog by: Jenna Swan

With the recent and tragic death of a young man named Luka Gordic in British Columbia, and three 17-year-old men charged with manslaughter in connection to his death, the debate has been reawakened regarding the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) and whether or not it provides adequate protection for the community, and appropriate sentencing for the young people who commit violent crimes in Canada.

In a recent Ontario case, a young man was found guilty of first degree murder in the death of York Regional police officer Garrett Styles, a crime committed when he was just 15 years old.  In this case, the victims’s family feels justice has been served and appear comfortable with the fact that the offender will face a maximum 10-year sentence. “All we ever wanted was for the accused to be held accountable for his actions which cost Garrett his life,” said his wife Melissa in a statement. “We are pleased with the outcome in this trial. This serves as a reminder to all that there are consequences to the choices you make.”

Before the YCJA came into effect in 2003, youth who were older than 14 years old and charged with serious crimes could be transferred to adult court.  If a youth was 16 or 17 years old and being tried for murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or aggravated assault it was assumed they would be transferred and that an adult sentence would be applied unless the young person could convince the court otherwise.  With the reforms brought into effect in 2003, it was decided that this process was unfair to young offenders as it removed them from the youth justice system and the access to procedural protections appropriate to young people before they were even found guilty of a crime.

With the YCJA came a new set of rules and the elimination of the transfer to adult court.  Youth who commit a serious crime can still be sentenced as an adult if the use of a youth sentence would fail to hold the youth accountable, bearing in mind the reduced level of maturity and greater dependency shown by youth.  This is decided after a finding of guilt and a hearing to determine the type of sentence that will be appropriate – it is at this point that the victim and their family can have a say.  The victims are encouraged to contribute to the pre-sentence report that the judge will use to help make the decision, and a Victim Impact Statement can sway the decision in favour of a harsher penalty.

Over 25,600 supporters have signed a petition on change.org and almost 18,000 people have “liked” the facebook page titled ‘Justice for Luka’ that is calling for the three teenagers charged with manslaughter in his death to be moved to adult court and charged with murder.  While the courts cannot try the young men as adults, they could very well be sentenced as adults if they are found guilty.  There were four men arrested, but only one is facing adult charges because he was 18 years old at the time the crime occurred. The victim’s family naturally wants justice for their loved one whose life was taken.  Many Canadians feel that young people who commit serious violent offences are not held appropriately accountable.

In Canada, a number of legal, medical and social science experts have determined that before the age of 18, a young person has neither the developmental capacity nor the foresight to be held to the same standards as an adult.  The intention of the Youth Criminal Justice Act is to promote long-term protection of the public and puts an emphasis on crime prevention, rehabilitation, reintegration and meaningful consequences for youth.  Since its inception, the number of youth in secure custody has dropped from more than 1,000 per day to currently under 400 per day.  The rate of recidivism has dropped to 56.2% in 2012 from 63.5% in 2008.

The Act recognizes the importance of timely intervention in attempting to help a youth get their life on track and become a contributing member of our society.  Statistics Canada completed a report of youth cases in court which shows a decline in youth criminal cases overall since the adoption of the YCJA.  By treating the youth as unique to adult offenders, justice staff are able to create success stories such as those highlighted by the Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Services.  The reality is that the YCJA was designed to hold young people accountable in proportion to their age.  Evidence shows it is best to divert young offenders away from incarceration whenever possible in order to rehabilitate them and ensure more positive future outcomes for them.

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

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