Young people have rights and responsibilities when it comes to dealing with the police and breaking the law.
A crime is an act that breaks one of Canada’s criminal laws. A crime is sometimes called “an offence”. For example, if someone robs a bank, they have committed the crime of robbery, which is an offence under the Criminal Code of Canada.
If a person is 12 to 17 years old and is charged with a crime, the Youth Criminal Justice Act applies. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) is a Canadian law that guarantees the rights of young people in the criminal justice system.
The law applies to youth between the ages of 12 and 17. A child under the age of 12 cannot be charged with a crime. At age 18, a person is considered to be an adult in the eyes of the court and will go to trial in adult court.
The law in Canada says that it is important to think about keeping youth out of jail, especially if the offence is not serious. The law recognizes that youth are not as mature as adults. In some cases the police may give the youth a warning instead of arresting him or her. If the youth is arrested and found guilty of a criminal offence, the sentence must be fair for the crime committed.
The goal of the law is to prevent crime and help young people become responsible members of their communities. The law also wants youth involved in crime to understand the effect of their criminal acts. Protection of the public is important. Learn more about the YCJA.
The youth’s right to have a lawyer is very important and he or she is reminded of that often. A youth must have the opportunity to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible and at every step in the criminal process. A judge will not allow a youth to plead guilty unless he or she understands the criminal charge, understands the options (guilty or not guilty), and understands the fact that he or she might get a sentence. If a youth goes to court without a lawyer, a duty counsel (lawyer paid by the government) will be there to help.
When a youth is arrested or held at the police station for questioning, the police must tell the youth’s parents about the arrest. The parents are also told about the youth’s right to have a lawyer.
The Youth Justice Court (a division of BC Provincial Court) is for criminal cases for young people under the age of 18 when the alleged crime happened. A judge listens to the evidence and decides if the youth is guilty or not guilty. If guilty, the judge also decides on a sentence.
All Youth Justice Court cases are scheduled for a morning or afternoon hearing. The youth who has been charged with committing an offence waits until it is time for his or her case to be heard.
When the youth’s case is heard by the judge, the judge may ask the youth’s parents to give the youth’s age and date of birth. The lawyer can give this information if the youth’s parents are not in the courtroom. The charges against the youth are read out loud.
If the youth pleads “guilty”, the judge will decide on a sentence (punishment) and there will be no trial. Before deciding on the right sentence, the judge will ask for more information about the youth. This information can come from the youth’s parents, his or her probation officer, or other people who know the youth.
If the youth pleads “not guilty”, the court will set a trial date. At the trial, the Crown prosecutor will ask witnesses to say what they know about the crime. The youth’s lawyer will also ask these witnesses questions. The youth’s lawyer might ask the youth or other witnesses to give evidence (say what happened). The Crown prosecutor will ask questions.
At the end of the trial, the judge will decide if the youth is guilty or not guilty. If the youth is not guilty, he or she is free to go. If the judge decides the youth is guilty, the judge will decide on a sentence (punishment).
Judges apply special rules when sentencing youth. Sentences should be similar to other youth sentences in similar cases. A sentence should not be more severe than a sentence given to an adult. The judge will give a sentence that helps the youth feel responsible for their actions. Sometimes a youth’s sentence is to do community service, like volunteering in a homeless shelter. Learn more about youth sentencing.
When a youth is convicted of committing a crime, his or her name cannot be published. This is done to protect the youth. If the youth’s identity is not protected, he or she might find it difficult to return to his or her community. It might also affect the youth’s ability to move forward in life. So, for example, if there is a report in the paper about the crime, the youth will be referred to only by the initials of his or her name (like K.M.).
If the youth has committed a very serious crime (like murder), he or she might be treated as an adult in court. In this case, the youth’s name can be published.
Usually, a youth will only be sent to jail if he or she has committed a violent offence and is a serious repeat offender (the youth has committed the same or similar offence before).
A judge will think about many things before sending a youth to jail. All other options must be reviewed first. A youth cannot be sent to jail unless:
A judge must always give a reason for sending a youth to jail. In most cases, a youth will spend two-thirds of his or her sentence in jail, and the rest in the community.
A youth record is any document that connects a youth to a criminal case under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Youth records include all the information kept in police, court, government or non-government agency records about an individual’s involvement with the youth criminal justice system. This is much broader than an adult “criminal record”, which refers to information about particular crimes kept on a police computer system.
Like adults, a youth who is found guilty of a crime will have a criminal record. Information about his or her criminal history is kept in a file. Only certain people can read the youth’s criminal record:
- The youth
- The victim
- A police officer
- A Crown prosecutor
- A judge
- The youth worker
- The youth’s parents or guardian
- The youth’s lawyer
- The Attorney General of the Province
- The director of a jail
- The youth’s school supervisor
No one can look at a youth record after a certain period of time has passed (more on that below). An adult criminal record remains on the system and is available to police, courts and others forever, unless the person receives a pardon.
Having a criminal record can prevent a youth from travelling outside of Canada or studying at some universities. The convicted youth will usually have a record for 3 to 5 years after his or her last youth sentence is over. Sometimes the record is kept longer if the offence was very serious. Learn more about youth records.
You may have heard that a youth record is erased or closed when you turn 18. This is not always true. What happens to a youth’s criminal record depends on:
- the type of crime committed;
- the sentence received; and
- whether any other crimes have committed.
The time when a youth record is open is called the “access period.” During the access period only the police, court, and some others listed in the Youth Criminal Justice Act can see what is in a youth record.
Here are some examples of how long your youth record will be open to police, courts, and the others listed in the YCJA.
For more information about youth records see The People’s Law School booklet Consequences of a Youth Record.
Last reviewed: March 2016
IMPORTANT: This page provides legal information, not legal advice. If you need legal advice consult a lawyer.
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