A Look at the Youth Criminal Justice System in Canada

October 22nd, 2023
A Look at the Youth Criminal Justice System in Canada

The youth criminal justice system in Canada is governed within federal law by the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), which superseded previous laws pertaining to children such as the Juvenile Delinquents Act and the Young Offenders Act (YOA). The YCJA applies to children 12 or older but not yet 18 years of age. In today’s blog article, we are going to take a brief look at this youth legal system.

The YCJA came into effect in 2003 and has been amended since then. The point of the federal law is to treat children differently than adults, although children in Canada can receive adult sentences if the crimes are bad enough, if the child is 14 or older. In contrast, in England and Wales that age of adult responsibility is 10, and in the Scandinavian countries, that age is 15.

YCJA was drafted with an eye to stop incarcerating children for minor crimes, to try to prevent future criminal behaviour and recidivism, to sentence children fairly and in proportion to the offence, to help rehabilitate and reintegrate children into society, and to address gender and special issues.

Canadian federal law assumes that children are not adults and do not have the same mental or cognitive capacity as adults. Therefore, they should be treated fairly and like children. Some would argue that these children committing offences are treated too leniently in Canada, but that is a debate outside the scope of this article.

One interesting point here is that while federal law governs how the law both protects and prosecutes children, these laws are implemented by each province, and how the law is implemented varies somewhat between provinces.

In Canada, the incarceration of children is viewed as a last resort. Police, local and federal, are encouraged to use all kinds of tools to steer children into the right direction as opposed to locking them up right away.

When the YCJA came into effect, there was over a few years a significant drop in the cases of prosecution and incarceration of children, although the long-term effects of this strategy on overall adult crime are debatable.


Gagan Nahal is a criminal defence lawyer based in Surrey, British Columbia, although he has represented clients across Canada. He works vigorously and tirelessly defending his clients. 

If you have any questions about this article or you would like to talk to Mr. Nahal, please call him directly at (604) 527-4769.