The climax of a good western is when the cowboy in the white hat finally comes face to face with the villain – the bad guy who has terrorized the town. Few audiences would leave the theatre satisfied if the hero gave the bad guy a stern talking to and sent him off into the sunset with a social worker riding side-saddle behind. But in real-life Canada, what does serving justice mean, especially when it comes to our young offenders?
Historically, Canada has separated young offenders from the adult justice system. And historically, many have argued that too many young cowboys have ridden off into the sunset without paying for their crimes. Is the youth criminal justice system too easy on young offenders? What’s really going on with our youth and how is our justice system responding to youth crime?
If our youth justice system were a spa-ghetti western, it might borrow its title from the Clint Eastwood film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are aspects of the Canadian youth justice system that are working well. The system also has shortcomings that have had ugly consequences for Canadians. But unlike the plot of a classic western picture, youth justice legislation is complex, and requires nuanced reforms rather than dramatic change.
It has been five years since Canada replaced the maligned Young Offenders Act with the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The government promises a review of the YCJA this year. The YOA intended to create a youth justice system that balanced legal processes and penalties with welfare-based interventions. But without clear principles, courts issued inconsistent penalties and sentences. Under the YOA, the incarceration rate for young offenders was higher than many other western countries.1
Prominent Queen’s University professor of law, Nicolas Bala summarized the YCJA’s improvements over the YOA, writing in the early days of the legislation, “the YCJA has a large number of relatively small changes, which cumulatively should result in significant change in the youth justice system.”2 One of the significant changes was the directive to correct the YOA’s over-reliance on custodial sentences and pre-trial detainment. Policy-makers pursued this aim while underscoring the need for meaningful consequences, rehabilitative measures and consideration for the interests of victims.3
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