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1984: Juvenile delinquents become young offenders

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For 76 years, the Juvenile Delinquents Act of 1908 addressed underage lawbreakers in Canada, treating them (in its own words) as "misdirected and misguided" children who needed help. But by the 1960s it was sorely outdated and a public debate began on how to fix it. In 1984 the federal government finally adopts a new approach: the Young Offenders Act (YOA). Under it, youth are entitled to the same rights as adult lawbreakers but are shielded from the influence of the adult corrections system.

As this CBC-TV clip explains, the provinces are balking at the new act, which comes into force on April 2, 1984. They don't object to its philosophy of responsibility for young people, but to the federal government's refusal to provide more funding for its enforcement.

• Under the Juvenile Delinquents Act (JDA), young people under 16 could be charged with the general offence of "juvenile delinquency" rather than a specific crime. In some cases, youth who had committed a relatively minor crime were forever saddled with a federal criminal record. On another CBC program, Grant Lowery, executive director of Central Toronto Youth Services, described the JDA's approach as "benevolent tyranny."

• In 1966 a justice committee tabled a report on Canada's youth justice system. A bill proposing a new Young Offenders Act (YOA) based on that report made its way into the House of Commons in 1970, but it died on the order table.

• Children's mental health advocates objected that the 1970 bill would unfairly label youth as arsonists, thieves or sexual offenders. The Canadian Mental Health Association sent a letter to members of the Senate and the House reading: "It is a criminal code for children, which is distasteful in its terminology, legalistic in its approach and punitive in its effect."

• After another parliamentary committee report and a series of consultations in the mid-1970s, another bill for a new YOA came before Parliament in 1981. One of the bill's principles was that if youth were to be held criminally responsible for their offences, they must also be accorded the accompanying legal rights and responsibilities.

• The YOA of 1984 was a set of procedures for dealing with young people accused of a crime, not a criminal code for youth. It covered people between the ages of 12 and 18, whereas the JDA could be applied to children as young as eight. (Children under 12 could not be held criminally responsible under the YOA.) Young offenders were also to be tried in youth courts, which the provinces protested because of the cost of setting them up.

• The YOA also prohibited those accused from being publicly identified. In September 1984 the Ottawa Citizen argued to the Supreme Court of Ontario that by prohibiting identification of minors, the YOA violated a young person's right to a fair trial held before the public. But government lawyers argued that the ban on identification, aimed at ensuring privacy, was a reasonable limit on press freedom. The court upheld the restriction.

• In 1997 a parliamentary committee tabled a report recommending further changes to youth justice, and a year later the government announced a new strategy. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), designed to replace the YOA, had its first reading in Parliament in 1999. The new act sought to correct problems with the youth justice system including overuse of incarceration, minor cases that did not belong in court, unfair sentencing, insufficient reintegration to society and a lack of consideration for victims' rights.

• Due to delays for human rights hearings, the 2000 election and numerous amendments, the YCJA didn't come into force until April 1, 2003.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: April 2, 1984
Guest(s): Lucien Beaulieu, Robert Kaplan, Gordon W. Walker
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: Vicki Russell
Duration: 2:19

Last updated: November 3, 2014

Page consulted on November 3, 2014

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