Youth Court Judges' Views of the Youth Justice system: The results of a survey


Little is known about how the length of a probation term is determined. Looking at a subset of provinces, it appears that in a case in which a youth is given a probation order without custody (i.e., probation is the most significant disposition), the length of the probation order is likely to vary somewhat as a function of the province in which the order is given. The following table shows this variability across provinces.

Percent probation terms (without custody) of each length
<1 month 1-3 mo. 4-6 mo. 7-12 mo. 13‑24 mo. >24 mo. Total (N)
NF 2 % 15 % 53 % 30 % 100 % (869)
NS <1 % 2 % 19 % 53 % 26 % <1 % 100 % (1122)
QC <1 % 2 % 25 % 67 % 6 % <1 % 100 % (4964)
ON <1 % 1 % 12 % 57 % 29 % <1 % 100 % (11,083)
SK <1 % 6 % 26 % 50 % 19 % 100 % (3185)
AB <1 % 4 % 27 % 55 % 13 % <1 % 100 % (4732)
BC <1 % 5 % 22 % 53 % 19 % <1 % 100 % (4662)

Source: Youth Court Data Tables (Table 6 for each jurisdiction), 1998-99. CCJS, Statistics Canada.

The variation across provinces is most evident if one looks at the proportion of probation terms of over one year. Compared with the other provinces, Newfoundland and Ontario tend to have a higher portion of these relatively long probation terms while Quebec tends to have fewer.

Although there is a good deal of variation in the proportion of probation orders with lengths of over one year, no provincial or regional differences appeared to exist with regard to the frequency with which judges listed different factors as relevant in the determination of the length of a probation order.[37] The relevance of various factors for determining the length of probation orders is shown in the following table.

Determining the length of a probation order
Factor Relevant to determining length of probation order Not relevant to determining length of probation order Total
More or less standard length 18.5 % 81.5 % 100 %
Depends on seriousness of offence 63.9 % 36.1 % 100 %
Depends on how long it will take to connect with services/programs 60.1 % 39.9 % 100 %

In their written comments, judges also mentioned various additional factors, including the following:

  • the length of the (required) program;
  • supervision and guidance needed by the youth;
  • the time of year (e.g., where in the school year cycle the youth was);
  • the criminal or custodial record of the youth.

A number of judges made a point that came up elsewhere in their decisions about youths: each case was seen as different, requiring a particular combination of factors. In addition, some judges expressed a preference for short probation orders ("long probation orders [are] of questionable value - young people cease to relate [the] terms [of the probation order] to [the] offence over time," or "I try to keep it as short as possible - make a point and move on"). Other judges expressed a preference for the opposite ("seldom will order probation of less than 12 months as 3-6 months are required to gain access to most programs" or "normally one year or more - I feel it takes at least one year to have any effect"). Another judge situated him/herself in the middle ("It is somewhat arbitrary: I err on the side of longer periods of probationary monitoring."

Judges tended to be favourable about sentences of probation, both in terms of its ability to control the behaviour of youths and in connecting a youth with programs and services. [38] No significant provincial (or regional) variation in these views appeared to exist, nor was a difference found between those judges who hear cases in large centres (i.e., populations of 100,000 or more) vs. smaller communities.

How helpful is probation in controlling young person
  Frequency Valid percent Cumulative percent
Valid Very useful 62 26.4 26.4
Somewhat useful 141 60 86.4
Only occasionally useful 24 10.2 96.6
Don’t know 6 2.6 99.1
Depends 2 0.9 100
Total 235 100  
Missing 3    
Total 238    

How useful is probation in connecting youth to services
  Frequency Valid percent Cumulative percent
Valid Very useful 107 45.1 45.1
Somewhat useful 116 48.9 94.1
Only occasionally useful 6 2.5 96.6
Don’t know 7 3 99.6


1 0.4 100
Total 237 100  
Missing 1    
Total 238    

However, some judges qualified their support for probation by noting, for example, that it depended on the adequacy of resources that were available to the probation service or the particular probation office. Another judge suggested that it was important for the judge to have a good relationship with the probation officer/office. Nevertheless, it is clear from answers described in the two previous tables that terms of probation are seen by judges as ways of individualizing the disposition in such a way that youths can be both controlled and treated. Unfortunately, I did not include questions concerning the use that judges made of specific conditions of probation to accomplish these goals.

  • [37] Questions E9
  • [38] Questions G1, G2
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