What Happens When a Youth Breaks the Law?

Graham Zoppi & Hillson

January 17, 2023
Youth Criminal Justice Lawyer in Toronto

No parent wants to see their child charged or arrested by police. Understanding the youth criminal justice process can help parents understand how they can best protect their children when they become involved in the youth criminal justice system. Whether you’re looking to prevent criminal offences or need answers after the police have charged your child with a crime, this guide can help you.

What is the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA)?

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) sets out the procedures that govern youth who have been charged with a criminal offence. The YCJA covers youth rights upon arrest and detention, the questioning of youth by police, the trial process, sentencing, and youth records.

A young person under the YCJA is defined as any person who is at least 12 years old but is less than 18 years old. Children who are under 12 years old cannot be charged with a criminal offence in Canada.

The police have the discretion to lay or not lay a criminal charge against a youth. They will consider, among many factors, whether the youth has had prior run-ins with the law, the severity of the alleged offence, and the input of complainants. Officers may decide to give a warning to the youth or to the parents without laying a formal charge.

What Happens After the Police Charge a Youth with a Crime?

Notice to Parent: The police are required to give notice to the parent of a young person as soon as possible after the youth is detained or charged. A youth has further protections if the police wish to question them as unlike adult accused, youth can have the right to have a parent or lawyer sit in on any police interview. In some cases, Child and Family Services may also be notified by police upon a youth being charged with an offence.

Rights to Counsel: As with all other people placed under arrest, the police must give youth the right to counsel and inform them of their right to remain silent as soon as practicable upon arrest. This step is especially key as youth have a reduced understanding of legal rights and the legal protections afforded to them by the Charter. In addition to the right to consult with counsel, youth also have the right to consult with a parent before making any statement to the police.

Release: The police may release a young person from the scene without requiring a bail hearing. There will be a future court date that the youth will have to attend, and the youth may have to abide by certain conditions as a requirement of their release.

If the police choose not to release a youth from the station, a bail hearing before a Justice or Judge will be required for the youth to be released from custody. During the bail hearing, the Justice or Judge will determine if the youth should be released on bail and under what conditions. The youth will be held at a juvenile detention or remand facility until bail is granted.

When Do Youth Gain Legal Rights and Responsibilities?

In Canada, the age of criminal responsibility is 12 years of age. However, youths must be 14 or older for a judge to sentence them under adult criminal law. Sentencing a youth using adult criminal law only occurs in severe circumstances, such as repeat, significant violent offences and/or murder.

The Canadian justice system recognizes that offences committed by young persons are still crimes, and there is a need to hold young persons accountable. However, the law also recognizes that young people have reduced moral blameworthiness and culpability by the nature of their age and stage of development.

The YCJA only applies when a 12- to 17-year-old youth breaks the law. Youth in this age range have dedicated youth courts within which their criminal proceedings occur. Individuals 18 years or older who commit an offence must go to adult criminal court.

What Happens if a Child Under 12 Years Old Breaks the Law?

The age of criminal responsibility in Canada is 12. Any child under the age of 12 who breaks the law cannot be charged with a crime, detained in custody, or sent to court. Police will refer children under 12 who commit what would otherwise be criminal offences to appropriate community organizations for assistance and intervention.

What Are the Potential Penalties When a Youth Commits a Crime?

The outcomes for youth who commit crimes depend on numerous factors. Usually, the type of offence, seriousness of the offence, the youth’s personal history, and their age influence how the law handles youth crime. 

Extrajudicial Measures and Community Programs

The court can prescribe extrajudicial measures or sanctions to address a young person’s bad behaviour. As defined by the YCJA, extrajudicial measures are ways of responding to youth crime that do not involve youth justice court proceedings. These may include warnings, talks with parents, volunteering, counselling, or referrals to community programs.

Community programs vary from region to region. However, they all encourage youth to take responsibility for their crimes. Common elements of community programs involve having offending youth write an apology, volunteer in the community, or fix the damaged property. Moreover, community programs often include counselling for substance abuse, anger issues, and other mental health problems.

Youth Detention

Sometimes, the courts might order youth detention if the nature of the offence is so serious or repetitive that youth detention becomes necessary as part of the sentence.

Youth detention involves different types of youth justice facilities. The facilities fall into two types: open and secure. Open custody facilities are located within the community, while secure custody facilities are more restricted and subject to higher security protocols. Both offer programming designed to aid rehabilitation and reintegration, allowing students to keep up with their studies before their release from custody. Young people are expected to have learned from their experience once released from custody.

All youth in custody have a personal probation officer. Their officer will help them deal with substance or anger issues, helping them return to the community in a better and more improved state. Probation officers help at-risk youth make better choices going forward.

Why Do Young People Join Gangs?

Some young people join criminal gangs in an effort to fit in or find community. While gangs can involve people of any socioeconomic, cultural, or racial background, young people who join gangs may be influenced by one or more of the following categories:

  • Poor school attendance
  • Lack of community involvement
  • Family history of crime
  • Hostile or troubled family environment
  • Lack of connection with personal and cultural identity
  • Poor peer associations

Gangs provide a sense of community to at-risk young people, helping them meet new friends and giving them a place to belong. To properly address youth gang activity, parents and social services must address the underlying motivators for gang participation. Both at-risk and actively involved young people require police and community intervention to deter them from criminal activity, in addition to the support of their families.

Contact an Experienced Toronto Criminal Lawyer: Graham Zoppi

If your child has been arrested and you’re wondering what happens when a youth breaks the law in Toronto or the GTA, it is important to contact an experienced criminal defence lawyer like Graham Zoppi immediately. For over 20 years, Mr. Zoppi has represented clients all over Ontario who are dealing with criminal charges. Call RGZ Law at (416) 873-6970 now!