Youth Charges and Young Offenders in Ontario
Youth charges pose a unique problem for the criminal justice system in Canada: how to balance rehabilitation with consequences that are meaningful. This balancing act creates opportunity for the skilled defence lawyer.
AT A GLANCE
Time to completion
Without trial: 2 to 5 months
With trial: 12 to 18 months
Youth Charges in Ontario: Imagining Adulthood Without a Criminal History
Canada’s criminal law affords "young persons" – or youths under the age of 18 – unique rights and privileges. These rights and privileges impact all aspects of the criminal process: from how they are investigated, to their treatment at the bail stage, to the very types of sentences that are available if and when they are found guilty of a crime.
Post-conviction, even the criminal records of young offenders are placed under tight control, ensuring that they do not needlessly follow them into adulthood.
For young offenders, the practical effect of these special rights and privileges - created by the Youth Criminal Justice Act - is to place hard limits on the severity of the criminal justice system. Their purpose is to shift focus away from "deterrence" - a key principle when prosecutors and judges deal with adults - and instead to place a premium on rehabilitation and re-integration into society.
But as too many youthful offenders already know, even this more lenient treatment has its limits. For all its enlightened qualities, Canada's youth criminal justice model still insists on promoting responsibility on those who have committed a crime. And when pushed, it won't hesitate to send a young offender to jail.
So how does a criminal lawyer navigate this unique system?
As a criminal lawyer who has represented dozens of young offenders, it has been my experience that the special opportunities created by the Youth Criminal Justice Act are often lost in a sea of "similar treatment". Without patient guidance, a willingness to delve deeply into the reasons underlying a young person's misconduct, and a willingness to simultaneously develop an effective litigation strategy, many young people - instead of benefiting from a more flexible justice model - find themselves in a vicious cycle of endless new charges.
In the worst cases, this cycle continues uninterrupted into adulthood, generating ever-lengthening criminal records, and creating major obstacles for future education, employability and even travel..
Many of the causes of this vicious cycle rest with the young person herself. Drug addiction. Mental health. A complex, broken or abusive family background. Untreated trauma.
Others flow clearly from the the youth criminal justice system itself. It is perhaps here that an experienced youth criminal justice lawyer can have the greatest impact. Some examples:
Breach of recognizance (bail) charges flowing from overly strict bail conditions that never should have been imposed in the first place;
Breach of probation (or “youth disposition”) charges flowing from court orders more strict than what an adult would have received;
Failure to recognize and properly treat underlying mental health or substance abuse issues, and to seize on available community resources to address them prior to completing a criminal case; and
Failure to involve and educate a young person's parents or nearest kin, or to inform them of the dangers of relying too heavily on the criminal justice system to correct misbehaviour.
Experienced criminal lawyers know that a young person's life and psyche can be as complex as any adult's. As it concerns effective advocacy, the silver lining rests in this major difference: unlike adults, the root causes of a young person's misbehaviour are often much easier to identify. This can often be as simple as the grief of losing a loved one; the effects of parental separation; or experimentation with alcohol or drugs.
It has always been my belief that young people deserve as robust a defence as any adult. Failure to fight for a youth’s constitutional and legal rights means playing with that youth’s future. But, as the principles underlying the Youth Criminal Justice Act itself suggest, juveniles and young people also present a clear and present opportunity. An opportunity to heal, to learn, and to get back to building a positive and meaningful life.
If you or your child or teen is in trouble with the law, don't delay. Hire an experienced criminal defence lawyer with the energy, skill and judgment that are needed to navigate the criminal justice system before it's too late.
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