Advances in neuroscience and research on youth development confirm what we all know: young people are different from adults. The part of the brain responsible for reason and decision-making is not fully developed until one’s mid-twenties, and as a result, young people are more likely to engage in risky behaviours. Most adults admit to engaging in activities as teens that could have led to arrest—activities they avoid as adults. Even in serious cases, such as robbery or assault, most young people can be safely supported to find a path to a positive future if they are given the right support.
Both Canadian and international law recognize that young people should be treated differently than adults. Youth justice is a distinct area of law with its own legislation that recognizes young people’s heightened vulnerability, fundamental rights, special protections, and diminished moral blameworthiness. Young people have the right to a lawyer and full representation; they appear before judges in specialized youth courts. When young people are held accountable for their actions, the overarching goal is rehabilitation, not punishment.
Despite these special protections, too many young people are charged with criminal offences when the circumstances don’t warrant it. Many of those who are charged have difficulty obtaining good legal representation and finding programs that support their rehabilitation. At Peacebuiders, we’re committed to using the criminal justice system as a last resort; we’re dedicated to fundamentally transforming the youth justice system so that it gives young people an opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, work through conflict and repair harm.
This work begins by meeting kids where they’re at and providing services that wrap around the individual and adapt to their needs. It means understanding who they are and how to best support them to make decisions that lead to a positive future—and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.