Should criminals be treated differently by our courts, depending on their age? Have young offenders always been treated the way that they are now? Are criminal sentences tough enough on youth crime? This is no doubt a controversial topic for many, but it is one that must not be ignored because youth crime is occurring regularly and contributes to the unravelling of society.
Prior to the 1800s, youths were treated basically the same way as adults were when they committed a crime. English Common Law prevented children who were younger than seven years from being convicted of a crime. Between the ages of seven to fourteen, it was possible to convict a child only in cases where the Crown intervened. Those who had reached the age of fourteen when they committed a crime were tried as adults. During the 1800s, a number of reformers pushed for changes to the legal and penal treatment of children and youths. Separate houses of confinement were set up for youths and these became known as reformatories. The first reformatory was set up in the United States, in New York, in 1825 and by 1850 there were many. In Canada, reformatories did not find acceptance as easily or as quickly. As late as 1888, children were still being admitted to federal penitentiaries. However, in 1857, “An Act for Establishing Prisons for Young Offenders” was passed and led to the creation of two reformatories. In 1875, new legislation made it possible for many youths in penitentiaries to be moved to reformatories, although only allowing them a maximum stay there of five years. In the late 19th century, a movement began to move young offenders from reformatories to “Industrial Schools” where they received vocational training. In 1888, the “Child Protection Act” created a separate justice system for children. It was followed in 1908 by the “Juvenile Delinquents Act” which maintained that children would not be treated as adults when they committed offences.
In 1984, a major piece of legislation was created in Canada known as “The Young Offenders Act.” The Act provided young offenders with legal rights similar to those of adults. It maintained that young offenders were not to be punished in the same way as adult offenders. Exceptions were later made and, in some cases, youths can be tried in adult court. This Act did other things as well. It standardized the age of young offenders as being between twelve and seventeen, and it mandated more involvement of legal counsel. It removed certain kinds of offences. Amendments have been made to the Act, including the allowance of parole for youths who have been sentenced by adult courts. Parole may be given after ten years for those who have committed 1st degree murder and after five years for those convicted of 2nd degree murder.
The Young Offenders Act was replaced by the “Youth Criminal Justice Act” (YCJA) in April of 2003. Why was this new Act passed? One reason for the new Act was to soften the penalty for certain youth crimes. The YCJA set forth a sentencing principle by which a youth could never receive a penalty as great, or greater, than an adult. This sentencing principle was put in place because youths, under the Young Offenders Act, in many cases were actually receiving penalties as great or greater as the penalties that adults received. 1 Under the new Act, a youth having committed 1st degree murder has only to serve, in custody, a time of six years of a possible ten-year sentence, and for 2nd degree murder he has to serve a time of four years, in custody, of a seven-year sentence. Exceptions are made in the cases of youths over the age of fourteen who have had two or more violent criminal offences prior to the offence that they are now being charged with. In such cases, they may receive an adult sentence.
I believe that by softening the penalties on youth crime, society is inviting more of this kind of criminal activity. We should be discouraging youth crime by raising our standards high. Youths will only respect high standards. They will not respect standards that are so low that breaking them is inconsequential. Also, society must be protected. This is one area where society is very vulnerable and needs government and the legal system to raise the bar and, thus, increase protection. A crime is not less wrong when it is committed by a youth than by an adult. We need a legal system which holds adults and youths accountable and which especially prosecutes, to the fullest extent of the law, crimes involving physical violence or drugs.
Griffiths, Curt T. and Simon N. Verdun-Jones. Canadian Criminal Justice. 2nd Ed.
Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, Canada, 1994.