Youth Crime Statistics and the Impact of the Young Offenders Act on Youth Crime

Andrew McNaught
Research Officer
revised July 2000
Backgrounder 27
ISSN 1206-1514

Legislative Research Services
Ontario Legislative Library
Legislative Assembly of Ontario

Public opinion polls consistently show a widespread belief that youth crime is on the rise, that youth crime is becoming more serious in nature, and that the federal Young Offenders Act (the YOA) is contributing to these trends because it is too lenient on young offenders.

This paper sets out the most recent youth crime statistics from Statistics Canada and summarizes the findings of recent reports and studies on youth crime and how the YOA has influenced youth crime trends.


Seven Year Comparisons
Youth Court Decisions
Case Processing
Ontario Crime Control Commission
House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs
Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice
Police Perceptions about Youth Crime
John Howard Society
Other Studies


Public opinion polls consistently show a widespread belief that youth crime is on the rise, that youth crime is becoming more serious in nature, and that the federal Young Offenders Act (the YOA) is contributing to these trends because it is too lenient on young offenders.

Some point out that official crime statistics do not support this belief. Others argue that statistics do not give the whole story, and that politicians should heed the concerns expressed by the police and the public about the apparent increase in the rate and seriousness of youth crime.

This paper sets out the most recent youth crime statistics from Statistics Canada and summarizes the findings of recent reports and studies on youth crime and how the YOA has influenced youth crime trends.


In its latest report on youth crime, Youth Court Statistics, 1998/991, Statistics Canada reports that the number of cases heard in youth courts across the country is down for the seventh year in a row. Highlights of the report are noted below.

Seven Year Comparisons 1998/99

  • In 1998/99, youth courts processed 106,665 cases, down 7% from 1992/93. A drop in property crime of 31% over this period is the main reason for the overall decrease.
  • There were 435 youth court cases per 10,000 youths in 1998/99, an overall caseload rate that was 13% lower than in 1992/93.
  • The violent crime rate in 1998/99 was up 2% from 1992/93. Large increases over the seven years were recorded for aggravated assault (+32%) and robbery (+28%). On the other hand, major decreases were reported for sexual offences (- 39%), dangerous use of a weapon (-25%), possession of a weapon (-24%) and sexual assault (-21%).
  • While the number of drug crime cases doubled from 1992/93 to 1998/99, police statistics indicate that about two-thirds of all drug cases involved possession of cannabis.


  • In 1998/99, the most common offences were property offences (43% of youth court cases), followed by violent crimes (22%), "other Criminal Code Offences" (18%),2 violations of the YOA (12%),3 and drug-related offences (4%).
  • Violent crime cases accounted for one-fifth of all cases in 1998/99, with 45% of all violent crime cases involving minor assaults. Murder, manslaughter and attempted murder together represented less than 1% of all violent crime cases heard in youth courts. There were 37 cases of murder and manslaughter, and 71 cases of attempted murder in 1998/99.
  • Sixteen and 17 year-olds together accounted for just over half (51%) of all youths appearing in youth courts in 1998/99. Fifteen year-olds appeared in 21% of cases, and youths aged 14, 13 and 12 accounted for 15%, 8% and 3%, respectively.
  • Eight out of ten youth court cases involved male youths. Court cases involving females increased from 18% in 1992/93 to 21% in 1998/99.

Youth Court Decisions

  • Convictions were registered in about two-thirds (67%) of youth court cases in 1998/99. 29% of all cases were stayed or withdrawn, and 3% ended in dismissal or findings of not guilty.
  • Despite amendments to the YOA in 1995, which made it easier to transfer the most serious violent crimes involving 16- and 17-year-olds to adult court, transfers continued to be rare, accounting for less than 0.1% of the caseload in 1998/99.4
  • Almost half (48%) of all convictions resulted in probation orders, which means that sentences are served in the community. Open custody was ordered in 18% of cases, followed by secure custody (17%), community service (7%) and fines (6%). This distribution has varied little since 1992/93. Custody sentences were more likely to be imposed for the most serious crimes: attempted murder (92%), murder/manslaughter (83%), aggravated assault (71%), and robbery (50%). Probation was the more likely result in sexual assault, other sexual offences and minor assault (62%). Property crimes resulted in a probation order in 54% of cases; probation was ordered in 53% of drug-related cases.
  • Custodial sentences (open and secure) were imposed in 25,169 youth court cases in 1998/99, with the majority (77%) being for terms of less than three months. Custodial terms of 4 to 6 months were ordered in 16% of cases; terms of more than six months were handed out in 7% of cases. In 1992/93, 71% of custodial sentences were for terms of less than 3 months.
  • Four in ten convictions in 1998/99 involved repeat offenders. Persistent offenders (those with at least three prior convictions) accounted for 12% (5,474 cases) of all convictions.

Case Processing

  • Almost one-half (49%) of all youth court cases were processed within two months or less from the time of the first court appearance to the date of decision; 18% took more than six months to process.


In July 2000, Statistics Canada released statistics for 1999 for all categories of crime (youth and adult).6 Some of the figures for youth crime are noted below.

  • Overall youth crime in 1999 was down for the seventh year in a row. Just under 100,000 youths aged 12 to 17 were charged with crimes in 1999, down 7.2% from the year before, and down 21% from ten years earlier.
  • Violent crime dropped 5% from 1998, the fourth consecutive decline; however, this is still 40% higher than in 1989.
  • 45 youths were charged with homicide in 1999, a drop of nine from 1998, and six fewer than the average over the previous 10 years.
  • Female youth violent crime increased 81% over the ten years from 1989 to 1999, although male youth violent crime is still three times higher than the female rate.


Ontario Crime Control Commission

In May 1998, the Ontario Crime Control Commission released Report on Youth Crime.7 The Commission argued that "while important, official crime statistics are not an ideal way to gauge the actual incidence of crime." The report offered the following explanations for the strong public perception that crime is increasing.

  • People do not always report crime, particularly repeat victims of property crime. Victims of property crime are reluctant to report because they either believe that there will be little or no result if they do, or because they do not want their insurance premiums to increase.
  • Youth crime generally is under-reported. For example, a 1993 Toronto study suggested that up to 38% of victims of school crime do not report the crime to authorities.
  • Many crimes reported to police are not included in youth crime statistics because, unless an arrest is made, police cannot prove that a young person committed the crime.
  • Where an individual commits multiple offences in the course of a single incident, Statistics Canada only reports the most serious offence.
  • Crime committed by children under the age of 12 is not reported in official crime statistics.

Citing the testimony of RCMP officers who blame the "bureaucratic handcuffs" of the YOA for the failure of the justice system to deal with youth crime, the Commission called for the following amendments to the YOA:

  • Lower the maximum age for a young offender from 17 to 15, so that offenders age 16 and over are prosecuted as adults. In the alternative, young offenders 16 or older who commit serious offences should be transferred automatically to adult court.
  • Lower the minimum age for prosecution to 10.
  • Remove the ban against publishing the names of young offenders who commit serious crimes or who are repeat offenders.
  • Make the rules governing the admissibility of statements the same for young offenders and adults.
  • Permit access to legal aid only if the youth&146;s parent(s) cannot afford legal services.

House of Commons Standing Committe on Justice and Legal Affairs

The thirteenth report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, released in 1997, was a comprehensive review of the Young Offenders Act.8 Chapter 3 of the report, dealing with the public's perception of youth crime, suggests that members of the public generally underestimate the extent to which youth court judges send convicted young offenders to jail. It notes, for example, that the rate at which the youth justice system in Canada sentences youth to custody is four times higher than for adults. Moreover, the rate of youth incarceration in Canada is twice that of the United States and ten to fifteen times higher than in many European countries, Australia and New Zealand.

Witnesses appearing before the committee were critical of the tendency to impose custodial sentences because this exposes youth involved in minor crimes to more serious offenders. There was also criticism of the failure to provide rehabilitative programming. One judge made the following observation:

Seriously, if anybody has to look at what the problems are with the Young Offenders Act, it's not because the law, the statute, or the courts are not putting enough kids in custody. It's because when it comes time to find or to develop programs to make sure they won't be a danger to the community in the long term, those programs aren't there, and they're being turned back by the day.9

The committee also noted that, while there is a widely held view by Canadians that harsher penalties will deter youth crime, youth court statistics indicate that despite a high incarceration rate, recidivism in Canada remains a problem. For example, in 1993-94, 40% of convicted young offenders were repeat offenders and 25% were persistent offenders (three or more prior convictions). Based on these figures, the committee concluded that harsh penalties do not have a significant impact on recidivism.

Evidence presented to the committee suggested that the lack of understanding about how the YOA works has undermined confidence in the justice system. This lack of knowledge can be blamed to a large extent on the tendency of the media to focus on sensational crimes, without providing context and critical analysis. In this way, it was suggested, the media has fuelled and reinforced the public's fear of youth violence and the misconception that most youth crime involves acts of violence. This in turn has led to the demands for harsher criminal justice sanctions and explains why, despite the fact that the YOA has been amended three times (1986, 1992 and 1995) to increase penalties for violent crimes and to facilitate the transfer of youth to the adult system, the calls for tougher legislative measures have not abated.

It was also suggested to the committee that those who feel the YOA has been a complete failure and must be made tougher have created the following dilemma: "What do you do for your next act when the draconian measures fail? We're starting to amend this act every two years."10

Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice

The Task Force was established in 1995 by the federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for justice to review the YOA upon the tenth anniversary of its enactment. Its 1996 report11 includes a discussion of some of the problems that have been identified with the admissibility of statement evidence (as noted in the next section, a major concern of police officers). The report notes that the Juvenile Delinquents Act, which preceded the YOA, was silent about the admissibility of statements given by young people to persons in authority. However, in recognition of the "special needs" of young persons, the courts established common law rules that gave special consideration to statements given by young persons who were charged, arrested or detained, or suspected of offences. Section 56 of the YOA codified these common law rules, as well as the protection guaranteed in the Charter, and then added further protection.

The report then cites a number of problems that have been identified with s. 56.

  • It does not reflect the varying levels of maturity and development of young persons.
  • In all cases, the young person must be afforded the opportunity to consult with an adult relative or appropriate other person or counsel, if desired, regardless of the practical difficulties that might exist in meeting this requirement.
  • The term "persons in authority" has developed to include persons who might not be familiar with the provisions of the YOA. For example, statements made to school principals might be excluded if the principal does not comply with all of the requirements of s. 56.
  • Section 56 requires that language be used that is appropriate to the young person's age and understanding; however, it is unclear what this means in practice.
  • With respect to the right to consult, it is sometimes unclear who is an "appropriate adult."
  • It is unclear whether s. 56 applies to witnesses.
  • It is unclear whether privilege applies to conversations between young persons and parents.
  • It is unclear as to the acceptable form for a written waiver.
  • Voluntary statements given to police are excluded if the young person subsequently refuses to sign a written waiver.
  • Lengthy and complex forms, necessitated by the YOA, are confusing to young people.

Accordingly, the Task Force made a number of recommendations for clarifying the requirements of s. 56, including:

  • Establishing a standardized form for waiving s. 56 rights.
  • Simplifying s. 56 by limiting the enumeration of rights to those that apply uniquely to young persons.
  • Clarifying the circumstances in which the transfer to adult court warning applies.

The report also discusses other YOA issues, such as age jurisdiction, diversion programs and the publication ban.

Police Perceptions about Youth Crime

In 1997, the Solicitor General for Canada sponsored a study of what police officers from across the country consider to be "meaningful consequences" for a variety of crimes committed by young people.12 Two of the issues examined were the perceptions of police officers regarding the nature and extent of youth crime in their communities, and police perceptions of the effectiveness of the YOA.

It was found that youth crime and youth violence were perceived as "serious" to "very serious" by police in larger communities and that there was a perception that these activities had increased in the previous three years. When asked whether the YOA helped or hindered them in responding to youth crime, the majority of officers responded that the act was a hindrance. Some of their concerns are noted below.

  • The act establishes a tedious, time consuming and ineffective procedure for taking statements from young people. As a result, some officers said they have given up taking statements. Whereas statements had been a primary source of information prior to the YOA, officers now prefer to make their cases based on other information.
  • Police officers feel that the youth justice system under the YOA has become too legalistic and formal. Many officers stated that while young persons are often remorseful and willing to admit their guilt when the officer first arrives at the crime scene, their attitude often changes once the adversarial system takes over. At that point, the young person must be advised of his or her rights, as required under the YOA, and then charged. He or she then appears in court with a lawyer and the lawyer does all the talking; the young person does not have to give an account of himself or herself and the "game" becomes "getting off." The emphasis has shifted from what is in the best interests of justice and the young person to winning the case. This in turn sends a bad message to kids.
  • Many officers perceive an over-emphasis on the rights of young offenders at the expense of the needs of victims and public safety. They perceive the sentence limits, particularly for serious crimes, to be insufficient. In addition, some believe that the upper age limit for "young offenders" should be lowered from to 17 to 15 and that the lower limit should be reduced from 12 to 10.
  • Some officers said they were having difficulty enforcing the law regarding weapons violations. One example given involved a young person carrying an "exacto" knife. Unless the youth admits that he or she is carrying the knife as a weapon, there is little the police can do. Statements taken in these circumstances are often difficult to get entered as evidence into court.

John Howard Society

The John Howard Society of Alberta (the JHS) conducted a statistical analysis in response to the perception that youth crime is out of control and that the YOA is too lenient on young offenders.13

The paper reviews data that some have argued shows significant increases in youth crime from 1986/87 to 1992/93. Statistics Canada figures for 1992/93, for example, show a 27% increase in the number of charges laid against youth and a 32% increase in the number of cases heard in youth court. The JHS offers the following explanations for these numbers.

  • The increase in charges and youth court cases corresponds with a simultaneous increase in the size of the Canadian youth population.
  • Eighty-one percent of the charges that comprise the 27% increase are administrative offences, including failure to appear in court, comply with terms of probation or complete community service orders on time. These offences consistently comprised about one-quarter of all offences over this period.
  • The statistics for this period should be viewed with caution. This is because in some Canadian jurisdictions, 16 and 17-year-olds were added to the youth justice system by the YOA. Moreover, this age group typically commits more crimes than youths between the ages of 12 and 15 do.
  • Studies have shown that between 1986 and 1992 the police tended to charge more young suspects for each crime. That is, the number of youth crimes did not necessarily increase; rather, it was the number of young persons charged for each criminal incident that increased.

The JHS challenges the view that youth crime is increasing in seriousness.

  • According to 1996 statistics, youths were responsible for approximately 47 murders each year or roughly 8% of all homicides. This proportion remained unchanged for the previous decade.
  • Property crime comprised almost half of all youth court cases while violent offences represented only 21%. And, while the portion of youth court cases involving violent offences increased between 1986/87 (13%) and 1994/95 (21%), the increase was largely due to a significant increase in minor assault cases. The increase in violent offence cases can also be attributed to increased reporting to police of such incidents as minor school yard scuffles, or of any unwanted touching of one youth by another that technically constitutes assault. This reporting increase reflects society's growing intolerance for improper youth behaviour.
  • Smaller scale studies show that increases in the severity of youth crime should be viewed with caution. For example, a 1993 self-survey taken by Ontario teachers found a 150% growth in violent incidents over 1987 rates. However, this should be considered in light of the zero-tolerance policies that were adopted in Ontario which have led to all disruptive behaviour being reported to police, rather than handled by the schools themselves.

The JHS also responds to the perception that the YOA is too soft on young offenders.

  • From 1986 to 1993, the number of guilty pleas in youth court remained steady at about two-thirds of all cases, while the number of youths in custody rose 16%, comprising 30% of all youth dispositions in 1993. Half the custody orders given were for property offences.
  • The justice system treats youths more harshly than adults. In 1992, the rate of detention for adults in Canada was 151 per 100,000 adult population; for youth, 219 per 100,000 were incarcerated. Studies have also shown that the median sentence lengths for specific offences ranging from property crimes to sexual assault are similar for adults and youths. Moreover, whereas an adult will typically be released after serving one-third or two-thirds of a sentence, a youth can only have his or her custodial sentence reviewed in youth court, something that rarely happens.
  • Ontario has led other provinces in the incarceration of young offenders. The rate of laying charges and placing youths in custody is twice that of Quebec or British Columbia. About 80% of youths in custody in Ontario were convicted of property offences, while 70% of the total budget for young offenders is spent on incarceration.

Other Studies

Apparent Increase in Youth Crime after the Introduction of the YOA

In a 1994 study,14 Professor Peter Carrington and Sharon Moyer found that the proportion of apprehended youth that were charged increased from 53% during the four years immediately preceding the enactment of the YOA to 64% in the first six years after the act came into force. This increase was observed in those provinces where 16- and 17-year-olds were added to the youth justice system by the YOA.15 The authors note that other research suggests that the reason for the increase in police charging is due to the increased procedural formality under the YOA and the need to need to lay charges in order for young offenders to qualify for diversion programs.

Report to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice

A 1996 study commissioned by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice provides a statistical comparison of the ways in which young offenders are dealt with across the country.16 One of its conclusions is that the emphasis on serious crime in the media and in the minds of many private citizens does not reflect the actual state of youth crime. The statistical evidence clearly indicates that the vast majority of youth crime is not serious in nature. Moreover, self-report studies in other countries have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of children and young persons do things, usually of a less serious nature, that could, technically speaking, result in criminal charges if the circumstances are right. Some degree of criminal behaviour, it is pointed out, is a normal part of growing up, and for many young persons the most effective crime control is maturity.

Statistical evidence presented in the report confirms the conclusions reached by Carrington and Moyer (noted above) about the effect on reported youth crime rates of adding 16- and 17-year-olds to the youth justice system and the introduction of more formal procedures under the YOA.


To address the apparent lack of public confidence in the YOA, federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan introduced the Youth Criminal Justice Act (Bill C-68) in the House of Commons on March 11, 1999. This bill died on the order paper when the House was prorogued in September 1999, but was re-introduced on October 14, 1999 as Bill C-3, the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA).

For a broad range of resources, see the Youth Criminal Justice Act, Issue Gateway No. 9, by Research Officer Andrew McNaught.


1 Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada, Youth Court Statistics, 1998/99, Catalogue no. 85-002-X1E Vol. 20 no. 2, May 2000.

2 "Other Criminal Code offences" include failure to appear in court and escaping custody.

3 YOA offences were mainly "failure to comply with a court disposition."

4 Under the 1995 amendments, 16- and 17-year-olds charged with murder, manslaughter, attempted murder or aggravated sexual assault are tried in adult court, unless the accused can show why the case would be more appropriately dealt with in youth court (in which case the lower maximum sentences prescribed under the YOA would apply).

5 Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada, Juristat: Canadian crime statistics, 1997, Vol. 18, no. 11, Catalogue no. 85-002-XPE.

6 The Daily, Statistics Canada, 18 July 2000, available on the Internet at:

7 Ontario Crime Control Commission, Report on Youth Crime (Toronto: The Commission, May, 1998).

8 Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, Renewing Youth Justice: Thirteenth Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, April 1997.

9 Ibid., p. 18.

10 Ibid., p. 22.

11 Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice, A Review of the Young Offenders Act and the Youth Justice System in Canada, August 1996, Chapter 11.

12 Tullio Caputo and Katherine Kelly, Police Perceptions of Current Responses to Youth Crime (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1997).

13 The John Howard Society of Alberta, Youth Crime in Canada: Public Perception vs. Statistical Information, (Edmonton: The Society, 1997).

14 Peter J. Carrington and Sharon Moyer, "Trends in youth crime and police response, pre- and post-YOA," Canadian Journal of Criminology, 1994, 36(1): 1-28.

15 In eight provinces and territories (including Ontario), the YOA caused the addition of 16- and/or 17-year-olds to the youth justice system; in the remaining jurisdictions, these age groups were already included.

16 Sharon Moyer, A Profile of the Juvenile Justice System in Canada (Report to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Youth Justice), November 1996.

Copyright (c) 2000: Office of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.