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There may be a fair amount of misconception out there when it comes to youth crimes and how old you have to be before you are charged as a youth or charged as an adult. Part of that has to do with the fact that the laws have changed a few times in recent years: once in 1984 and again in 2003, with some additional minor changes to the law in 2012.

Essentially, the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which has been around since 2003, is now the law for Canada’s youth justice system. In order to be charged with a crime under this Act, you have to be between 12 and 17 years old.

If you are less than 12 years old, you cannot be charged with a crime. You would be considered to be a child, or of an age where you don’t know the difference between right and wrong.  The provincial government’s child protection ministries or agencies will deal with these youth instead.

If you are 18 or older, then you are considered to be an adult, and can be charged and sentenced as an adult. The Youth Criminal Justice Act no longer applies.

However, some people may still think that if a youth commits a serious crime, such as murder or aggravated sexual assault, they may be transferred to adult court. If then convicted, some believe he or she would automatically receive an adult sentence. That was the way under the old youth justice system covered by the Young Offenders Act, which was law from 1984 to 2003. This way of charging youth for serious crimes was complex, caused backlogs and delays, and wasn’t particularly fair, as it assumed the youth was guilty of the crime before being transferred to adult court.  

Today, all youth cases – regardless of severity – are heard in youth court, where the youth’s guilt is proved or disproved. If the youth is found guilty of a serious crime, then the youth court can impose an adult sentence. In order to get an adult sentence under the Act, the youth:

  • Has to be at least 14 years old (with some possible exceptions that will be discussed in a moment).
  • Must have committed a crime whose punishment as an adult would be more than two years in jail.

A few things changed with the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2012, though:

  • If a youth is 14 or older and is charged with a serious violent offense, it’s up to the Crown to apply for an adult sentence. If they don’t apply for an adult sentence, they must tell the court. Each province can move the age where the Crown must tell the court it is applying for an adult sentence or not from 14 to 15 or 16.
  • A court will only put in place an adult sentence if the Crown can essentially prove that the young person knew what he or she was doing despite their young age – since the Act assumes that young people have a diminished maturity and ability to know right from wrong – and that a youth sentence wouldn’t be long enough to hold the youth accountable for their actions.
  • If a young person under the age of 18 gets an adult sentence, they can be placed in a youth detention facility. When they turn 18, they may be then moved to an adult jail.

But, despite all of this talk about jail time and adult sentences, the whole point of the Youth Criminal Justice Act is to actually provide recourses to keep youths out of jail while still protecting the public – at least, in the case of less serious offenses.

In 1999, 63 percent of youths accused of a crime were charged. In 2010, under the new law, 42 percent of youths accused of a crime were charged. Most times, these days, police take measures such as issuing warnings and cautions to keep youth who would have been charged for offenses that weren’t so serious, such as shoplifting, out of the courts.

For more information and more statistics, please consult the Department of Justice’s Web site on the Youth Criminal Justice Act.   If you, or your loved one has been charged with a crime, or have questions about the Youth Criminal Justice Act please feel free to contact our office at 613-233-0008 for a free, no-obligation 30 minute consultation.