In all of the provinces of Canada, the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) is the body of law that establishes the procedures for youthful offenders. The YCJA covers young people who were between 12 and 17 years old when they committed the action of which they stand accused.
When a person in this age group breaks the law in Toronto, Ontario, the authorities will refer to YCJA to determine the appropriate handling of the charges. Following a number of progressive reforms throughout the last half of the 20th century, the police and the Ministry of the Attorney General make every effort to deal with these young people without initiating formal court proceedings, called “extrajudicial measures. "
Those accused of very serious or violent crimes, many repeat offenders and youths that fail at the prescribed extrajudicial measures will be charged and go to court. If they are found guilty, the court will hand down a sentence that does not include the options available extra-judicially.
Throughout Ontario, it is the Ministry of Children and Youth Services that oversees the programs and services for young people who have been deemed acceptable for extrajudicial handling, or have been determined to be “at risk" of breaking the law by one or another public agency. The ministry's services are designed and applied with the intention of
- building safer communities and preventing crime,
- empowering young people to make better choices,
- confronting youths’ issues to keep them from getting into trouble again, and
- holding them accountable for their choices and actions.
If your child is scheduled for a “day in court, " it means you have already gone through an assessment by the police as well as the Ministry of the Attorney General (AG), the department that oversees the court processes for young people. Working closely with the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (CSCS), which oversees the police, the AG initially attempts to handle the youth's troubles outside of the formal court system.
It is not unheard of for some cases to be referred back to this phase even after a “day in court" has been scheduled, as Canadian juvenile justice is predicated on the belief that young offenders have wholly different needs and propensities than do adults.
This realization has prompted the Province of Ontario to provide young people with chances to take advantage of effective diversion programs before initiating court proceedings. These extrajudicial measures and sanctions are put into practice in schools throughout the province, bringing together the police, educators and community agencies address a range of youth issues and help troubled young people stay in school
Community and restorative programs
The young people in these extrajudicial programs are taught to take responsibility for their own actions and learn new skills for staying out of trouble. Specific diversionary actions might include
- counseling for behavioral issues and drug abuse,
- volunteering in the community,
- repairing, restoring or reimbursing for both damaged and stolen property,
- writing (and reading aloud) an apology, and
- taking anger management classes, if appropriate.
There are also “restorative justice programs" in which the youthful offender, his/her family, the victim(s) and community representatives assemble, under the supervision of trained facilitators, to discuss the offense, the harm it caused and ways to redress the wrong.
Additional community-based services include community service, probation, structured programs at designated Youth Intervention Centres and specialized mental health services. If your child is being considered for an extrajudicial or community-based diversionary approach, there will be guidance provided to you, as parents, so that you may effectively advocate for your child's best interests. These interests, of course, are foremost in the mind of the judicial officers and magistrates, as well.
Official court proceedings
If the informal extrajudicial measures are determined to be inappropriate for rehabilitating a particular youth accused of a crime, the authorities may choose to lay a charge against the young person. From this determination a number of steps ensue, which are your responsibility, as parents, to take with and for your child. Understanding your child's rights, your rights as parents and the general operations of the youth court system under the YCJA are essential for achieving justice.
Once a charge is laid, judicial system officials are charged with protecting the young person's rights at every step of the process. The first obligation is always to inform young persons of their right to counsel, and to contact the parents or guardians. The judicial process will then proceed through the following steps: first appearance, plea, trial and appeals processes. The YCJA also describes and defines the situations in which the court can summon the parents of the young person to appear, order a medical and/or psychological report on the accused you, place the young person with a child welfare agency and, perhaps most importantly, decide whether to release or detain the accused pending trial.
Various parts of the YCJA apply at various stages of the proceedings, even after the young person has been found either guilty or not guilty. For example, the right to an attorney is applicable through the young person's entire experience with the court system, as are rules regarding the medical or psychological assessments. Perhaps the best advice for parents with children facing charges in Toronto, or anywhere else in Canada, is to read through the YCJA themselves.
Judges will sentence a youth to custody if other measures are unsuccessful in deterring the criminal behavior. A custody sentence will be for a specified amount of time, and there are both “open" and “secure" custody arrangements. Youths do not go to prison, per se, but to custody residences located throughout the Ontario. When in custody, youths are required to participate in programs that offer education, life skills, cultural programs, emotional and addiction counseling, anger management and physical recreation.
If charges are, in fact, laid against your child, it is always a good idea to get up-to-date legal advice from a licensed attorney, and resist the notion of representing your child yourself. For extrajudicial and diversionary phases, you may not need (and, depending on the proceeding, the court may not even allow) an attorney by your side. However, it is a good idea to seek advice from one, anyway, so that you are fully aware of your own rights as parents, and of the options and alternatives available to you and your child under the laws of Canada, which aim at all times to be the most progressive, humane and effective in the world.
About the Author
Kostman & Pyzer is a criminal defence law firm serving clients in the Greater Toronto area and elsewhere in the province of Ontario since 1983. Not every toronto lawyer is created equal. We are creative, experienced and hardworking. We pride ourselves on our aggressive representation of clients and our relentless commitment to success.