Youth court statistics in Canada, 2011/2012

by Mia Dauvergne

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In Canada, the youth justice system has operated separately from that for adults for over a century. From the inception of the Juvenile Delinquents Act in 1908, to the Young Offenders Act in 1984 and the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in 2003, it has long been recognized that the principles that govern the adult criminal justice system are not necessarily suitable for young people accused of crime.

The YCJA legislation currently in place applies to young persons aged 12-to-17 years and emphasizes the principles of the protection of society, crime prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration, meaningful consequences and timely interventions. In this regard, emphasis is placed upon diverting youth who commit crime away from the traditional justice system and reserving the most serious sentences for the most serious types of crime. That said, although the number of youth court cases has dropped substantially under the YCJA, many cases continue to be processed through the courts.

Using data from the Integrated Criminal Court Survey, this article presents information on youth court cases completed in Canada in 2011/2012.1 It discusses short and long-term trends in the number and types of cases, the characteristics of youth who appear in court, case decisions, sentencing outcomes and the length of time taken to complete youth court cases.

Cases completed in youth courts reach lowest point in 20 years

In 2011/2012, Canada’s youth courts completed just over 48,000 cases involving about 166,000 Criminal Code and other federal statute offences, such as those contrary to the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) (Table 1). This number represented a 10% drop from the previous year (almost 5,300 fewer cases) and the third consecutive annual decline. The 2011/2012 decrease reflects the lowest number of completed youth court cases since these data were first collected by Statistics Canada in 1991/1992 (Chart 1).

chart 1 Cases completed in youth court, Canada, 1991/1992 to 2011/2012

Description for chart 1

Recent drops in the number of completed youth court cases occurred across the country. The largest decreases were in the territories where drops ranged from -23% to -36% between 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 (Table 2).2 Among the provinces, British Columbia recorded the largest decrease in youth court cases, down by 16% from the previous year, followed by New Brunswick (-14%) and Ontario (-12%).

Many factors may influence changes in the number of youth court cases completed over time and in various jurisdictions. These may include differences in Crown and police charging practices as well as the number, types and severity of offences in a case. As well, some jurisdictions may utilize other procedures such as warnings, cautions, referrals and/or extrajudicial measures to address criminal matters to a larger extent than others. Therefore, comparisons between jurisdictions should be interpreted with caution.

Virtually all types of youth court cases decline in 2011/2012

Similar to previous years, ten types of cases accounted for most (70%) of the youth court caseload, the majority of which involved non-violent offences such as theft (14%)3 and break and enter (8%) (Chart 2).4 The most common type of violent youth court case involved common assault, at 8% of all completed cases.

chart 2 Guilty cases completed in youth court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 2

The decrease in the total number of completed youth court cases between 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 was driven by fewer cases involving virtually every type of offence (Table 3). More specifically, decreases were seen among all types of property crime cases, including the two most common ones: theft (-17%) and break and enter (-15%). Among violent crime cases, drops included fewer major assault (-15%) and criminal harassment (-14%) cases. Other types of cases, namely those involving impaired driving (-21%), administration of justice offences (-8%), and those against the YCJA (-5%), also declined from the year before. For many types of cases, including, attempted murder, major assault, common assault, theft, break and enter, fraud, mischief, failure to appear, breach of probation, unlawfully at large and impaired driving, the number completed in 2011/2012 was the lowest since data were first collected in 1991/1992.

The main exception to the decrease in the youth court caseload involved cases for drug offences, which accounted for 8% of all cases in 2011/2012. Cases for possession of drugs rose 7% while cases for other types of drug crime (e.g. trafficking, production, exporting/importing) were up 2% from the previous year. There was also one more homicide case in 2011/2012 than in 2010/2011 and six more cases involving the combined category of “other sexual offences”, such as sexual interference and invitation to sexual touching.

Most youth court cases involve 16- and 17-year-olds

Police-reported data consistently show that crime rates tend to peak during late adolescence and early adulthood (Brennan 2012). Information from youth courts supports this finding despite the fact that not all crimes that come to the attention of police necessarily proceed through the court system.

In 2011/2012, 16- and 17-year-olds accounted for 61% of cases completed in youth court while 12- to 15-year-olds accounted for 39%.5 The larger proportion of older youth held consistent for both males and females and across most types of cases. For cases involving sexual assault and other sexual offences, however, accused persons were more often younger youth (12- to 15-year-olds) than older youth.

As is also the case for crime in general, the majority of completed youth court cases involve male accused (Chart 3). In 2011/2012, about three-quarters (77%) of youth accused were male and one-quarter (23%) were female.6 The representation of females was highest among cases for fraud, disturbing the peace and failure to appear (each accounting for 37% of all accused youth) and lowest for sexual assault (3%), other sexual offences (6%), homicide (7%) and weapons offences (9%).

chart 3 Cases completed in youth court, by sex and age group of accused, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 3

Guilty findings lower than a decade ago

Cases completed in youth court typically result in one of three outcomes. The first, and most common, is a finding of guilt in which the accused person either pleads guilty or is found guilty by the court. Second, cases may be stayed (suspended for up to 1 year), withdrawn, dismissed or discharged as a result of proceedings being stopped or interrupted (e.g., due to lack of sufficient evidence or referral to an extrajudicial measures program). Lastly, each year, a relatively small proportion of cases result in an acquittal in which the accused youth is found not guilty of the charge presented before the court.7,8

In 2011/2012, nearly 6 in 10 (57%) completed youth court cases resulted in a guilty finding. There were some types of cases that resulted in a finding of guilt more (or less) often than others. For example, unlawfully at large and impaired driving cases had the highest proportions of guilty findings (90% and 88%, respectively) while those for drug possession and disturbing the peace (33% and 37%, respectively) had the lowest (Table 4).

Another 42% of completed youth court cases were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged, and about 1% were acquitted. In addition, less than 1% of cases resulted in another type of decision, such as the accused being found not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial.

There is considerable variation in the types of decisions reached by courts across different provinces and territories.9 For example, in 2011/2012, the proportion of guilty findings ranged from a low of 50% in Ontario and Nunavut to a high of 79% in New Brunswick (Chart 4). Some of the difference may be explained by the use of pre-charge screening practices in which Crown prosecutors (rather than police) decide whether or not to lay charges. These types of practices exist in New Brunswick, Quebec and British Columbia where the proportions of guilty findings were each above the Canadian average. Jurisdictional differences in the use of extrajudicial measures programs may also influence court decisions.

chart 4 Guilty cases completed in youth court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 4

While the distribution of youth court decisions remained stable between 2010/2011 and 2011/2012, longer term data show that it has changed over the past decade or so. Beginning in the late 1990s, the proportion of cases resulting in a finding of guilt has decreased while the proportion of cases with a stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged decision has increased (Chart 5).

chart 5 Cases completed in youth court, by selected type of decision, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 5

Probation most common type of youth court sentence

There are many types of sentences that may be imposed upon a youth found guilty of a crime. In determining the most appropriate sentence, judges must ensure meaningful consequences while balancing the principles of the YCJA, including the protection of society and the rehabilitative needs of the young person (Department of Justice Canada 2012). Given the complexities involved, many youth court cases result in more than one type of sentence (e.g., probation and community service order).

As in previous years, probation, either on its own or in combination with another type of sentence, was the most common type of sentence, imposed in about 6 in 10 (58%) guilty youth court cases in 2011/2012 (Table 5, Chart 6). Probation is a community-based sentence that requires youth to abide by certain conditions, such as reporting to a probation officer and/or keeping the peace. The median length of most types of 2011/2012 youth court cases in which probation was imposed was 365 days (or 1 year) (Table 5).

A community service order, in which a youth is required to perform unpaid work, was issued in one-quarter (25%) of all guilty youth court cases in 2011/2012 (Table 5). This type of sentence, often issued in combination with probation, was most commonly associated with cases involving the category of “other drug offences”, namely those for drug trafficking, exportation and importation, and production (39%), and drug possession (33%).

chart 7 Guilty cases completed in youth court, by length of custody sentence, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 6

Youth court sentences to custody decline from 10 years ago

Another type of youth court sentence is a custody disposition which requires a youth to be detained in a correctional facility or youth justice centre. This type of sentence is the most severe and, according to the YCJA, is to be reserved for the most serious of crimes committed by youth.

Overall, 15% of guilty youth court cases resulted in a sentence to custody in 2011/2012 (Table 5). A custody sentence was most often imposed in attempted murder cases (75%), followed by unlawfully at large cases (67%) and homicide cases (53%). In contrast, guilty cases for disturbing the peace, impaired driving, and drug possession seldom resulted in a youth court sentence to custody.

Most custody sentences were relatively short, at three months or less (74%). Another 18% of custody sentences were greater than three months to six months, and 7% were greater than six months to one year. Fewer than 2% of youth court custody sentences exceeded one year (Chart 7). The median length of a custody sentence in 2011/2012 was 39 days, although sentences for certain crimes, such as homicide (730 days), attempted murder (240 days) and sexual assault (176 days), were considerably longer.10

chart 6 Guilty cases completed in youth court, by type of sentence, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 7

There is considerable variation across provinces and territories in the use of youth court custody sentences.11 Among the provinces, the proportion of guilty cases with custody sentences was highest in Prince Edward Island and Ontario, both at 21% of all guilty cases, and more than double the proportion in Manitoba (9%), the province with the lowest proportion of custody sentences (Chart 8).

chart 8 Guilty cases completed in youth court sentenced to custody, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 8

Since the implementation of the YCJA in 2003, the proportion of youth court cases resulting in a sentence to custody has fallen. More specifically, in 2011/2012, 15% of guilty youth court cases resulted in a custody sentence. This compares to 24% to 29% throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (Chart 9).

Recent decreases in the use of custody have been offset somewhat by the use of deferred custody and supervision, introduced in 2003 under the YCJA as an alternative to custody. This type of sentence is served in the community under a set of strict conditions which, if violated, can result in the young person being sent to custody to serve the balance of the sentence. Since 2003, deferred custody and supervision sentences have been imposed in about 4% to 5% of all guilty youth court cases (Chart 9).12

chart 9 Guilty cases completed in youth court, by selected sentence, Canada, 1991/1992 to 2011/2012

Description for chart 9

Time taken to complete youth court cases declines for third year in a row

According to the YCJA, the measures taken against young persons who commit an offence should be administered within a timely manner. While a specific time frame is not stated, historical court cases suggest that, in general, an 8-to 10-month period is considered acceptable.13 For cases involving a trial, an additional 6-to-8 months is acceptable.14

In 2011/2012, the median length of time taken to complete a youth court case was 108 days (or about 3½ months). While this represented the third consecutive decline, the median elapsed period of time from first to last court appearance remained higher than throughout the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s (Chart 10). The greatest increase in the median length of time taken to complete a youth court case occurred between 2002/2003 and 2003/2004 (up 25 days).

chart 10 Median length of cases completed in youth court, Canada, 1991/1992 to 2011/2012

Description for chart 10

Some types of court cases tend to take longer than others. In 2011/2012, the median time for homicide cases was the longest at 395 days (about 13 months), followed by those for sexual assault (252 days or about 8½ months) and attempted murder (247 days or about 8 months) (Chart 11). Longer case times for violent offences may be partly related to trials which, in 2011/2012, were held more often in violent cases than non-violent cases (10% versus 5%).15

chart 11 Ten cases completed in youth court with longest median cases times, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 11

Median case times also tend to vary considerably by province and territory.16 For the fifth year in a row, Manitoba reported the longest median case time among the provinces at 140 days (about 4½ months), followed by Quebec (134 days or 4½ months) (Chart 12). Case times in these two provinces were nearly five times longer than the shortest median case time reported in Prince Edward Island (29 days). Prince Edward Island also reported the shortest median times for adult court cases in 2011/2012 (Boyce 2013).

chart 12 Median length of cases completed in youth court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 12

Summary

Canadian youth courts completed about 48,000 cases in 2011/2012, resulting in the third consecutive annual decline and the lowest number of cases since data were first collected in 1991/1992. The decrease between 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 occurred across the country and among virtually all types of cases.

About 6 in 10 (57%) youth court cases resulted in a finding of guilt, a proportion that was similar to the previous year though lower than a decade ago. As in previous years, probation continued to be the most common type of youth court sentence, imposed in 58% of all guilty youth court cases in 2011/2012. A custody sentence was handed down in 15% of guilty youth court cases, a lower proportion than was seen throughout the 1990s.

The median length of youth court cases in 2011/2012 was 108 days (or about 3½ months), the third consecutive decline, but still higher than in the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s.

Survey description

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) is administered by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (Statistics Canada) in collaboration with provincial and territorial government departments responsible for criminal courts in Canada. The survey collects statistical information on adult and youth court cases involving Criminal Code and other federal statute charges. Data contained in this article represent the youth court portion of the survey. The individuals involved are persons aged 12 to 17 years (up to the 18th birthday) at the time of the offence. All youth courts in Canada have reported data to the youth component of the survey since the 1991/1992 fiscal year.

The primary unit of analysis is a case. A case is defined as one or more charges against an accused person or company that were processed by the courts at the same time and received a final decision. A case combines all charges against the same person having one or more key overlapping dates (date of offence, date of initiation, date of first appearance, date of decision, or date of sentencing) into a single case.

A case that has more than one charge is represented by the charge with the "most serious offence" (MSO). The most serious offence is selected using the following rules. First, court decisions are considered and the charge with the “most serious decision” (MSD) is selected. Court decisions for each charge in a case are ranked from most to least serious as follows: 1) guilty, 2) guilty of a lesser offence, 3) acquitted, 4) stay of proceeding, 5) withdrawn, dismissed and discharged, 6) not criminally responsible, 7) other, and 8) transfer of court jurisdiction.

Second, in cases where two or more charges result in the same MSD (e.g., guilty), Criminal Code sentences are considered. The charge with the most serious offence type is selected according to an offence seriousness scale, based on actual sentences handed down by courts in Canada.17 Each offence type is ranked by looking at (a) the proportion of guilty charges where custody was imposed and (b) the average (mean) length of custody for the specific type of offence. These values are multiplied together to arrive at the final seriousness ranking for each type of offence. If, after looking at the offence seriousness scale, two or more charges remain tied then information about the sentence type and duration of the sentence are considered (e.g., custody and length of custody, then probation and length of probation, etc.).

Cases are counted according to the fiscal year in which they are completed. Each year, the ICCS database is “frozen” at the end of March for the production of court statistics pertaining to the preceding fiscal year. However, these counts do not include cases that were pending an outcome at the end of the reference period. If a pending outcome is reached in the next fiscal year, then these cases are included in the completed case counts for that fiscal year. However, if a one-year period of inactivity elapses, then these cases are deemed complete and the originally published counts for the previous fiscal year are subsequently updated and reported in the next year’s release of the data. For example, upon the release of 2011/2012 data, the 2010/2011 data are updated with revisions for cases that were originally pending an outcome in 2010/2011 but have since been deemed complete due to a one-year period of inactivity. Data are revised once and are then permanently “frozen”. Historically, updates to a previous year’s counts have resulted in an increase of about 2%.

Lastly, there are many factors that influence variations between jurisdictions. These may include Crown and police charging practices, the number, types and severity of offences, and various forms of diversion programs. Therefore, any comparisons between jurisdictions should be interpreted with caution.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Cases and charges completed in youth court, Canada, 1991/1992 to 2011/2012

Table 2 Cases completed in youth court, by province and territory, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012

Table 3 Cases completed in youth court, by type of offence, Canada, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012

Table 4 Cases completed in youth court, by type of offence and decision, Canada, 2011/2012

Table 5 Guilty cases completed in youth court, by type of offence and selected sentence, Canada, 2011/2012

References

Boyce, Jill. 2013. “Adult criminal court statistics, 2011/2012.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

Brennan, Shannon. 2012. “Police reported crime statistics, 2011.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X (accessed December 13, 2012).

Department of Justice Canada. 2012. “The Youth Criminal Justice Act: Summary and Background.” Ottawa. (accessed December 13, 2012).

Notes

  1. For information on adult court statistics in Canada, see Boyce 2013.
  2. In general, jurisdictions with smaller completed case counts tend to see more fluctuation in year-over-year percentage changes.
  3. Includes, for example, theft over $5,000, theft  $5,000 or under, as well as motor vehicle theft.
  4. Unless otherwise stated, youth court cases that involve more than one charge are represented by the most serious offence. For further information, see Survey description section.
  5. The analysis of youth court cases by age is based upon the accused person’s age at the time the alleged offence was committed. Excludes cases for which the age of the accused was unknown.
  6. The analysis of youth court cases by sex excludes Manitoba due to the unavailability of information. Also excludes cases for which the sex of the accused was unknown.
  7. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the terms “acquittal” and “dismissed” are used interchangeably, resulting in an under-count of the number of acquittals in that province. In other provinces, the number of acquittals may be over-counted due to administrative practices.
  8. A small proportion of cases result in other outcomes, such as not criminally responsible, waived in/out of province, a mistrial, the court’s acceptance of a special plea (e.g., autrefois acquit), cases that raise Charter arguments, and cases where the accused was found unfit to stand trial following a fitness hearing.
  9. There are many factors that may influence variations between jurisdictions such as Crown and police charging practices, offence distributions, and various forms of diversion programs. Therefore, comparisons between jurisdictions should be interpreted with caution.
  10. Median custodial sentence lengths exclude time spent in custody prior to sentencing and/or the amount of credit awarded for time spent in pre-sentence custody. Also excludes cases in which the length of the custody sentence was unknown.
  11. See Note 9.
  12. Excludes Saskatchewan due to the unavailability of data for certain years.
  13. See R. v. Askov [1990], 2 S.C.R. 1199.
  14. See R. v. Morin [1992], 2 S.C.R. 1199.
  15. The analysis of trial cases excludes Manitoba due to data quality concerns.
  16. See Note 9.
  17. The offence seriousness scale is calculated using data from both the Adult Criminal Court (ACCS) and Youth Court Survey (YCS) components of the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) from 2002/2003 to 2006/2007.
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