Douglas Evans, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Canadian juvenile justice is authorized at the national level. The national government enacts laws and legislation to provide the structure of juvenile justice policy and practice, although provincial governments are responsible for managing juvenile confinement facilities, community-based programs, and the various forms of treatment and rehabilitation services. The national government, however, may subsidize a portion of costs at the provincial level.

The 1908 Juvenile Delinquents Act and its subsequent amendments guided the structure of Canadian juvenile justice until 1984. The 1908 Act was the first law to require different legal procedures and different sentences for juveniles. While the criminal (adult) system used determinate (or fixed length) sentences, the Juvenile Delinquents Act allowed for indeterminate custody of youth offenders, with release from custody depending on an assessment of each youth’s readiness. The law placed the responsibility for determining juvenile sentence length with the executive rather than the judiciary (Bala and Roberts 2006).

Canada’s 1984 Young Offenders Act replaced the 1908 Juvenile Delinquents Act. The new legislation set the national range for juvenile jurisdiction at ages 12 to 18. It also abolished indeterminate sentences and involuntary treatment for youths. It gave judges the discretion to allow early release for juvenile delinquents and established guidelines for the use of community-based sanctions for youth offenders.

The Young Offenders Act was the subject of public and political criticism. Some political officials believed that the Act’s maximum three-year sentence for violent youth was too lenient, even though most of the youth placed in custody were neither violent nor serious offenders. Over three-fourths of all juveniles placed in custody following the passage of the 1984 Act were held for non-violent offenses.

By the early 2000s, Canada had one of the highest rates of youth custody in the world (Bala and Roberts 2006). Increasingly, the costs of youth custody were becoming a significant fiscal burden.

The 2003 Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) replaced the Young Offenders Act. The YCJA limited judicial discretion in cases involving orders for custodial sentences. The law allowed incarceration and other restrictive interventions for only the most serious and violent offenses, and it specified that the primary goals of youth justice were crime prevention and rehabilitation. Severe sanctions were to be used only when necessary to promote public safety.

The YCJA prohibited the use of incarceration for violations of community sentences. To expand alternatives to custody for low-level offenders, the 2003 Act encouraged the use of community sanctions, including deferred custody, community supervision orders, and intensive support and supervision programs (Kong 2009). The legislation devoted considerable resources to prevention programs. In recent years, the Canadian national government distributed $200 million among the provinces to increase the use of community sentences, and another $30 million for prevention services.

In the year following enactment of the YCJA, custodial placements (i.e., youth confinement) declined 37 percent across Canada (Bala and Roberts 2006). The YCJA also changed the composition of those sentenced to custody. From 2003 to 2008, the number of youth property offenders sentenced to custody in five reporting jurisdictions dropped 50 percent. During the same period, there was a 36 percent decline in the overall number of youths sentenced to custody in nine Canadian jurisdictions (Kong 2009). The YCJA also reduced youth court caseloads. From 1999 to 2006, the number of youth court cases decreased 28 percent (Kong 2009).

The Act, however, did not accomplish all of its stated goals. Despite the YCJA’s restriction on custody for community sentence violators, courts continued to order custody for many youths charged with technical violations during a period of community sanctions (Solomon and Allen 2009). Canadian officials continued to seek an effective balance between offense-based sanctioning and needs-based rehabilitation. The focus of the system, at least officially, remained on preventing youth crime rather than punishing youth offenders. The YCJA expanded options for handling youth outside of the formal justice system, and Canadian policies continued to encourage rehabilitation through community supervision for all but the highest-risk juveniles.

Maintaining an appropriate balance in juvenile justice is somewhat easier in Canada than in other countries due to the nation’s single system of laws and policies. Legislation guiding juvenile justice policy and practice changed several times in recent decades, but the current system shows considerable promise in its ability to restrict the use of secure confinement to only the most serious and violent young offenders.


Bala, Nicholas and Julian V. Roberts (2006). Canada’s juvenile justice system: Promoting community-based responses to youth crime. In Junger-Tas, Josine and Scott H. Decker (Eds.) International Handbook of Juvenile Justice (pp. 37-63). New York, NY: Springer.

Kong, Rebecca (2009). Youth custody and community services in Canada: 2007/2008. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada.

Solomon, Enver and Rob Allen (2009). Reducing child imprisonment in England and Wales: Lessons from abroad. London, UK: Prison Reform Trust.