The PLEA: The Youth Criminal Justice Act

The PLEA: The Youth Criminal Justice Act

What Happens in Youth Justice Court?

How have youth courts been designed to protect young people while administering justice?

Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, all youth cases will be heard in Youth Justice Court.

Once in court, a young person has a guaranteed right to legal representation. This means that if the young person wishes to obtain counsel but is unable to, the court will order that counsel be provided if the young person asks.

In most cases, the trial will be open to the public and members of the news media. However, the public and the media are not usually permitted to publish or broadcast any information which reveals the identity of any young person involved in the trial.

The young person’s parents or guardians must be notified of all proceedings and are encouraged or may be required to attend. When a parent or guardian has not attended court proceedings, the judge may issue a written order requiring the parent or guardian to attend.

At trial, the crown prosecutor and counsel representing the young person (if the young person has counsel) present their cases and may call witnesses. After both sides present their cases, the judge must make a decision based on what has been heard.

If the young person is found not guilty, they will be acquitted, and that is the end of the case. If there is no appeal, all records will be sealed or destroyed two months after the appeal period passes. If there is an appeal, and that appeal is not successful, all records will be sealed or destroyed three months after the appeal proceedings.

If the judge finds the young person guilty, the judge will decide upon an appropriate sentence. Before giving the sentence, they will listen to any suggestions made by the crown prosecutor, the young person, their lawyer, their parents, or their youth worker. Judges must apply the sentencing principles of the YCJA.

Judges also have the option of calling a conference of community members for advice on an appropriate way to hold the young person accountable. Judges could also ask for a pre-sentence report, which is a written report given by a youth worker. In writing the report, the youth worker will talk to the young person, their parents, and possibly their teachers or others who know the young person. The victim may also be interviewed.

If the judge considers that the young person is suffering from physical or mental illness, the judge can ask for a medical, psychological or psychiatric assessment to help decide on a sentence.

In deciding what sentence to give, the youth justice court considers such things as how involved the young person was in the crime, how much the victim suffered, whether the young person has compensated the victim or made amends to the community at large, and whether the young person has any prior findings of guilt or previous extrajudicial sanctions. Possible sentences include:

  • a reprimand
  • an absolute or conditional discharge
  • a fine of up to $1,000
  • doing community service work or personal service for the victim
  • paying for, replacing, or returning stolen or damaged property
  • probation for up to two years
  • a period of custody followed by supervision in the community

In cases where a young person is eligible to receive custody, the judge must first consider all reasonable alternatives before imposing a period of custody.

If a young person gets custody, they will be held in a youth facility. If the young person turns 18 while in custody, the young person may either continue to serve their sentence in the youth facility until the age of 20 or be transferred to an adult facility depending on circumstances. In some instances, a young person may be allowed to remain in a youth facility after turning 20.

If a young person is under community supervision, they will live in the community under the supervision of a responsible adult such as a parent. The young person must abide by a number of conditions as part of community supervision.

Generally, a young person’s identity will not be published if they are found guilty under the YCJA. The court may allow the publication of names for youth who commit violent offences if there are concerns that the youth will commit another violent offence. As well, if a youth receives an adult sentence, their names may be published.


On rare occasions, young people who are found guilty of crimes can receive an adult sentence. Only youth who are at least 14 can be sentenced as adults. Provinces can change the minimum age to 15 or 16.

If a youth, who is at least 14 years old, has been found guilty of an indictable offence for which an adult could receive a prison sentence of two or more years, the prosecution can apply to the court for an adult sentence. If the youth has been found guilty of a serious violent offence—murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or aggravated sexual assault—the prosecutor must consider applying for an adult sentence. If they decide not to seek an adult sentence in these circumstances they must advise the court.

If a young person receives an adult sentence, their identity can be published. Their criminal record for that offence is not protected in the same way that youth records are. The sentence may also be much longer, as the limits on youth sentences do not apply. However, young people sentenced to an adult sentence must be held in a youth facility until they reach 18.

CONSIDER THIS: Applying Youth Justice

  1. The Canadian Bar Association—the organization representing Canada’s legal profession—has said that “experience has shown that at-risk youth learn or reinforce criminal behaviour in custodial centres; only when diverted to community options are they more likely to be reformed.” With this in mind, is it always best for judges to choose custody as a possible sentence?
  2. Russel Smandych, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manitoba, believed that the publication of youth names will create long-term problems for the reintegration of youth into society. He said that “Anyone who forever Googles their name is going to find that they were in the Winnipeg Free Press or in the CBC News and that they were shamed when they were 14 years old because they did this stupid thing. Do we really want that for our young people?”
    1. Do you think that publishing a young offender’s name will result in long-term harm for that person? How will this affect society as a whole?
    2. Should people be judged by their past actions or their present ones? Explain.

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