Prior to 2003, Canada held the shameful distinction of being the leader in the Western industrialized world for jailing its youth. The federal government at that time introduced the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) with the clear goal of decreasing the use of custodial sentences for young people. The Act explicitly sought restraint in the use of incarceration, and enshrined the recognition that youth are still learning, and are therefore less responsible than adults in the eyes of the law.
Since coming into effect in 2003, the YCJA has markedly decreased the overall incarceration rate of youth. Today, the rate of incarceration is 3.79 per 10 000 youths, compared to 17.64 per 10 000 youths in 2000.1 While the YCJA has succeeded at reducing the overall use of jail, there are important caveats to note. The decrease in rates of youth incarceration has been especially pronounced among sentenced youth as compared to youth detained on remand – that is, pre-trial detention. While it is encouraging that less youth are being sent to jail as punishment following a guilty finding, the ongoing use of pre-trial detention for youth calls for closer scrutiny of the post-charge and bail phase in Ontario.
An examination of the youth bail system shows that the successes of the YCJA are not equally shared by all youth. Fairness and equality under the law are fundamental principles afforded to us all. A young person’s experience with the justice system – or likelihood of being jailed – should not depend on where they live or what their background is. However, new research from the John Howard Society of Ontario (JHSO) indicates that for youth going through the bail system in Ontario, these factors can make a difference. This document provides select highlights from the research, for full analysis of the findings see the full Unequal Justice report.