The evolution toward juvenile justice in Canada has been a long one. Although, it originated in the 20th century, youth crime had been a significant problem for several centuries. Canadian society happened to face many crimes committed by teenagers because of different social and economic issues.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries Canada experienced a great wave of immigrants who were looking for job and better living conditions. However, life in general was hard for everybody at that time, so the immigrants had to do whatever they were asked. Many of them, being stuck in a poverty trap, could not provide their children with proper education, so the latter were brought up “by the street”. A big number of young girls and boys were loitering around the streets, neglected by their parents. Social problems, lack of education, parental neglect, bad living conditions, and lack of medical care were the major factors that triggered the youth to commit crime in order to make a living.

Usually, young criminals were treated in the same way as adults, and the punishments for crimes were severe. For example, in the 17th century in the town of Quebec a young boy of 15 was hanged for theft. Some of young offenders were put in iron collars, the other ones were beaten with rods. However, it was established that children under the age of seven could not be punished, without taking into consideration the committed crime, since they could not yet distinguish right from wrong. However, later the governing councils insisted on withholding harsh punishments for children under the age of 14. No matter how meticulous the authorities were towards young criminals, the last ones were imprisoned together with adult criminals in jails (Kingston Prison, for example) until 1857 when the government started building special juvenile institutions.

In the mid 19th century, a range of special schools appeared throughout the country. They provided young neglected boys and girls with home and technical or scholastic education. The next step was industrial school movement. In 1874 the Industrial Schools Act was passed in Ontario the main aim of which was to open institutions for problem and neglected youth under age of 14 who were found guilty by the court. By the end of the 19th century the Prisoner’s Aid Association of Canada introduced a set of proposals for the treatment of young offenders that had a strong impact on the whole country. In 1890 British Columbia enacted a Reformative Act allowing the reformatory establishments provide juvenile offenders with education and industrial training. Many reformers believed that young offenders were not actual criminals but children who needed help and understanding.

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In 1908, the government enacted the Juvenile Delinquents Act and so created the Canadian juvenile justice system. It was proposed to treat young offenders as “misguided children”. In the 60-70s, there were numerous debates on this act involving different reports. After enacting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1972, the federal government approved the Young Offenders Act that came into force two years later. For example, the penalty for first-degree murder was increased to 10 years of imprisonment and the penalty for second-degree murder was increased to 7 years. Apart from various changes to juvenile justice, this act draw public attention to the issue of the rights of young people. In spite of the critics, this act was undoubtedly an improvement over the Juvenile Delinquents Act. In May, 1998 the federal government released a document entitled A Strategy for the Renewal of Youth Justice, which focused on youth crime prevention and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

The first version of Youth Criminal Justice Act that was introduced on 11 March 1999 (Bill C-68) but it came into force only in 2003. Similarly to the preceding acts, this one introduced a number of new sentence options. By this action, the government was inclined to increase integration of youth into community life.

That was a new direction in terms of legislature aimed at achieving fairer and improved juvenile justice in Canada proposing various programs in regard to education and crime prevention.


Bala, N. (2004). Canada’s juvenile justice law & children’s rights. Kingston, ON: Faculty of Law, Queen’s University.

Bell, S. (2012). Young offenders and youth justice: A century after the fact, 4th Edition. Toronto: Nelson College Indigenous.

Loeber, R., & Farrington, D. P. (1998) (Eds.) Serious and violent juvenile offenders: Risk factors and successful interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Department of Justice. The international cooperation group (2004). The evolution of juvenile justice in Canada. Retrieved from

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