The 2008 National Justice Survey: The Youth Justice System in Canada and the Youth Criminal Justice Act

4. Discussion

The results of the 2008 National Justice Survey provided answers to some of the more pressing public opinion research questions surrounding the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the youth criminal justice system in Canada. 

4.1 Confidence in the Youth Justice System

Public confidence in the youth criminal justice system is quite low in Canada.  In fact, when compared to results from the 2007 National Justice Survey, the percentage of Canadians indicating low confidence in the youth justice system increased from 33% to 40% in 2008 while the percentage indicating high confidence dropped from 12% down to 7%.[2] 

The central issues associated with the lack of confidence in the youth justice system appear to be related to the sentencing of youth and the perceived lack of a rehabilitative effect following a sentence.  Nearly 40% of Canadians indicated a low confidence with the ability of youth courts to pass the right sentence and with the ability of the correctional system to rehabilitate youth.  While it is possible that some believed sentences were too long, it is much more likely that the majority of those indicating low confidence believed that the sentences are too short.  For example, when asked about the three-year maximum prison sentence under the YCJA for all offenders except those convicted of murder or those sentenced as adults, nearly 60% believed that the maximum sentence should be longer than three years, while only 5% felt it should be shorter. 

In other words, it is likely that the lack of confidence stems largely from a belief among many Canadians that the youth justice system does not sufficiently hold youth accountable for their crimes and does not rehabilitate youth in order to prevent future criminal behavior.  This notion is further supported by the fact that one of the most salient factors in explaining low confidence was the belief among Canadians that a lack of consequences from the justice system plays a strong role in contributing to youth crime.  In addition, those that believed the law and the courts are highly responsible for reducing youth crime also expressed significantly lower confidence levels than those who attributed much less responsibility to the justice system itself to prevent crime.  Therefore, those who express low confidence generally believe that while the justice system should prevent youth crime through sentencing measures that provide consequences to youth, it is not achieving this goal.

4.2 Perceptions of Youth Crime

The perception among the vast majority of Canadians that youth crime, including violent crime, drug crime and gang involvement, has been rising in recent years demonstrates that most Canadians do not believe that the youth justice system is effective in reducing crime.  Statistics Canada reported the overall violent crime rate in 2007 was at its lowest point in twenty years and that the property crime rate was at its lowest point in thirty years.[3]  This rate, however, includes youth crime, adult crime and crimes that have not been solved and therefore cannot be attributed to youth or adults.  With regards to the youth crime rate in particular, which only counts those crimes that have been solved and attributed to a youth, Statistics Canada reports that the overall crime rate has remained relatively stable over the last decade with some minor fluctuations up and down.  Moreover, the youth property crime rate has generally decreased over the last five years.  In other words, the perception among nearly 80% of Canadians that general youth crime and property crime have increased over the last five years is not supported by official crime statistics.  Therefore, Canadians either do not have knowledge of the official statistics or do not have confidence that they reflect reality. 

On the other hand, it is true that the youth violent crime rate has increased over the last few years so Canadians were accurate in stating that violent youth crime rates are higher now than five year ago.  This increase in reported youth violent crime, and the corresponding high level of media coverage, likely contributes to the perception that all youth crime is increasing. 

The vast majority of respondents also indicated that they believed that youth sentence lengths were generally shorter than adult sentence lengths.  While in two specific cases youth sentences are actually longer (i.e., drug possession and failure to comply with an order), this belief is quite accurate.  For all other major offence categories, including homicide, robbery, sexual assault, assault, break and enter, theft, and drug trafficking, youth generally receive shorter sentences than adults.[4]

4.3 Impact of Knowledge and Experience

Not surprisingly, knowledge and experience were found to significantly influence Canadians’ confidence in the youth justice system.  Those that expressed a high degree of familiarity with the Youth Criminal Justice Act, those with university education, and those that relied primarily on more academic sources such as government reports, books, and university courses, expressed a significantly higher level of confidence with the youth justice system than their counterparts.  However, those that had personal experience within the youth justice system (e.g., as an accused, victim, parent of a youth) expressed significantly lower levels of confidence than those without direct experience.  Therefore, there appears to be a contradiction between personal experience and learned knowledge

4.4 Demographic Differences

Another interesting difference in confidence identified within the 2008 NJS was the varying levels across the country.  Even after controlling for all of the factors in the multivariate analysis, it was clear that confidence levels in Quebec were much higher than the rest of the country.  In fact, living in Quebec was the strongest predictor of high confidence in the youth criminal justice system.  In contrast, living in western Canada (e.g., BC, Alberta and Manitoba) was related to lower levels of confidence in the youth justice system.  Interestingly, crime rates in general are much higher in the west than in Quebec which may explain some of this difference.[5]  It is also clear that those who value a more child-welfare and rehabilitative approach (e.g., warnings from police, psychological treatment options, informal measures such as diversion), which is often promoted in Quebec, are more likely to express higher confidence in the youth justice system compared to those who prefer a more law and order approach (e.g., adult sentences, longer youth sentences).  As well, those who believe that crime has strong roots in family environments, mental health issues and poverty, also express much higher levels of confidence than those who do not consider these to be salient factors. 

Finally, age and gender appear to influence confidence levels in Canada.  As one ages, the level of confidence in the youth justice system diminishes regardless of other significant factors.  According to Statistics Canada, approximately 14% of Canadians are currently 65 years of age or older.  By the year 2026, this is expected to increase to 23%.[6]  Therefore, as the Canadian population continues to age, it is likely that confidence levels in the youth justice system will continue to decrease. 

Women in Canada also appear to have less confidence in the youth justice system than men.  One possible explanation may be related to fear of crime.  According to the General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada, women have a much higher level of fear of crime (e.g., walking alone at night in their neighborhood) than men even though their level of victimization is relatively similar.[7]  This perceived vulnerability among women may explain some of the difference in confidence levels.  In other words, women may generally feel less confident that the youth justice system will be able to protect them from being victimized. 

4.5 Responding to Youth Crime in Canada

While most Canadians believe that youth crime is rising, there are some differences according to what the public believes is contributing to a perceived increase.  More than two-thirds of Canadians believe that illegal drugs and youth gangs play a strong role in contributing to youth crime in Canada while only one-third attributed youth crime to mental health issues.  In other words, it is likely that most Canadians would support interventions designed to reduce the impact of drugs and gangs on youth in an effort to reduce youth crime.  The second group of factors related to youth crime identified by Canadians include the family environment, poverty and neighborhood problems which are factors traditionally found within a social development crime prevention model.  As a result, it is likely that many Canadians would agree with efforts to support parents and families by strengthening family environments, improving neighborhoods and reducing poverty in an effort to reduce crime.  On the other hand, more than half of Canadians also believe that a lack of consequences from the youth criminal justice system contributes to youth crime.  This, coupled with the fact that more than half of Canadians also believe the three-year maximum is too short and that young offenders should not necessarily be held less accountable than adults, infers that lengthening the maximum sentence would likely be supported by a large proportion of Canadians. 

While an overwhelming majority of Canadians believe that parents have a high degree of responsibility in preventing youth crime, Canadians also believe that the youth criminal justice system should prevent youth crime.  For example, between one-half and two-thirds of Canadians feel strongly that the law (i.e., the YCJA) and the justice system (i.e., the police, the courts and the correctional system) should prevent youth crime.  Therefore, in order to increase confidence in the youth justice system, it is likely important to demonstrate its effectiveness in reducing recidivism among youth.  To date, little empirical and accessible research exists on the impacts of the formal youth justice system in reducing youth crime.  However, since most Canadians reported that they do not primarily rely on empirical research to shape their views, it is not clear how instrumental such data would be in altering perceptions in the end.

It is interesting to note that most Canadians support educational and employment skills development, programs designed to repair harm(e.g., community-based restorative justice programs), community supervision with conditions (e.g., probation) and psychological counselling over youth and adult prisons. Given the understanding among many that youth crime stems from poverty, family environments and criminogenic neighbourhoods, this makes sense.

With regards to the use of prison for youth, while Canadians are divided on whether it is an effective method of correcting behaviour, most accept that it should be reserved for serious violent and repeat offenders.  In addition, many believe alternatives outside of the formal justice system, such as diversion and restorative justice, would allow the courts to deal with more serious offences and allow the police to respond more directly and quickly to youth in violation of the law.  However, at the same time, the majority of Canadians also feel that such a process would not adequately demonstrate the seriousness of breaking the law.  Given this inconsistency, it may be that this concern is directed more at serious criminal behaviour and that for minor offending Canadians would support informal alternatives to the traditional justice system.

When examining what factors should increase a sentence among youth, it is clear that, for most Canadians, once a youth engages in violent behaviour, the sentence should be longer.  However, if a youth participated in a program designed to repair the harm caused by his or her criminal behaviour (e.g., a restorative justice program where the youth meets with the victim and agrees to repair some of the harm through some form of community service) or if the youth has addressed his or her drug addiction through treatment, a large proportion believe the sentence should be shorter. 

So how does one reconcile the sometimes conflicting views of Canadians?  It appears that when all of the data is analysed, the most important issue for the public is the prevention of future criminal behaviour.  In the previous cycle of the National Justice Survey (2007), respondents were asked to identify the most important goal of the justice system (not specifically the youth justice system) and rehabilitation was identified most often.[8]  Moreover, in the 2008 NJS, the vast majority of respondents thought that the youth justice system should focus on rehabilitation.  People want to believe that once a criminal has been arrested, the justice system will ensure that he or she does not commit another offence.  So why does this translate into support for longer sentences?  Likely, some Canadians assume that harsher sentences will provide a deterrent effect and prevent crime.  But at the same time, others appear to realise that youth may require responses such as counselling and education. 

In the end, it appears that for serious criminal behaviour, Canadians want the youth justice system to provide more consequences in the form of longer sentences.  However, for less serious crimes, the public would prefer to see youth held accountable through informal approaches and sentencing options other than prison (such as probation and community justice programs).  As well, the public is supportive of the provision of counselling services, educational and employment skills and other treatment based services, for youth (and possibly their families).  Additional research, possibly more in-depth focus groups with Canadians, may provide more information on this complex question. 

5. Conclusion

The goals of the 2008 NJS were to measure public confidence in the youth justice system, to identify viewpoints on particular responses to youth criminal behaviour and to assess perceptions of youth crime in Canada.  Confidence in the youth criminal justice system in Canada is generally low.  The central concern appears to be around a perceived lack of accountability and a belief that youth crime rates in Canada are increasing.  In addition, there are some relatively important factors related to confidence in the youth justice system including region of the country, one’s attitudes towards the appropriateness of criminal justice responses to youth crime and demographics such as age and gender. 

A large segment of Canadians believe that more welfare-oriented responses to non-violent youth crime, such as counselling, conditional supervision in the community, restorative justice programs, educational and employment skills are more effective in reducing youth crime compared to youth and adult prisons.

If a youth engages in violent behaviour, most Canadians believe that his or her sentence should be longer.  On the other hand, if a youth attends a treatment program to address a drug addiction or attends a community-based program designed to repair the harm caused by his or her crime, many believe the sentence should be shorter. 

The majority of Canadians also believe that youth crime in general and youth property crime have increased over the last five years even though official crime statistics do not support this perception.  However, it is true that the youth violent crime rate has risen over the last few years which may be a contributing factor to the perception that all youth crime is increasing.

The 2008 National Justice Survey has also identified several interesting additional research questions.  For example, if Canadians were presented with official crime statistics indicating a reduction in youth crime, would they continue to believe that it has increased?  And would this impact on confidence?  If Canadians were provided with accessible empirical research on the effectiveness of the youth justice system, would this alter their confidence levels?  Finally, is there a contradiction between Canadians’ support for longer sentences and the belief that issues such as poverty, negative family environments and criminogenic neighbourhoods play a strong role in contributing to youth crime?

  • [2]See Latimer, J. & N. Desjardins (2007). The National Justice Survey 2007: Tackling Crime and Public Confidence in the Criminal Justice System. Ottawa, ON: Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Canada.
  • [3]See Dauvergne, M. (2008). Crime Statistics in Canada, 2007. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada.
  • [4]Analysis was conducted using the Adult Criminal Court Survey and the Youth Court Survey managed by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics within Statistics Canada. A five-year average custodial sentence length (in days) for both youth and adults was calculated and compared and in all cases (with the exception of drug possession and failure to comply with an order), youth sentences were shorter. Naturally, this analysis does not control for a number of factors including time served in pre-trial custody, the criminal history of the accused, the length of community supervision, nor the level of severity of the particular offence – it is simply meant to determine if respondents were generally accurate in their perceptions.
  • [5]Supra note 2.
  • [6]See Bélanger, A., Martel, L. & Caron-Malenfant, É. (2005). Population Projections for Canada, Provinces and Territories. Ottawa, ON: Demography Division, Statistics Canada.
  • [7]See Ganon, M. & Mihorean, K. (2005). Criminal Victimization in Canada, 2004. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada.
  • [8]Supra note 1.
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