Adult criminal and youth court statistics in Canada, 2016/2017

by Zoran Miladinovic

Release date: January 24, 2019
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Highlights

  • In 2016/2017, there were 357,642 cases, involving 1,227,546 charges, completed in adult criminal court in Canada. In youth court in 2016/2017, there were 29,172 cases, involving 113,943 charges, completed in Canada.
  • The number of youth court cases declined 8% in 2016/2017 compared to a year earlier. Youth court cases have been declining in number consistently since 2008/2009. In contrast, the number of adult criminal court cases increased 2% in 2016/2017 from the previous year. This was the first increase in adult criminal court cases in seven years.
  • The median length of time it takes to complete a charge rose 10% from 113 days in 2015/2016 to 124 days in 2016/2017 in adult criminal court. In youth court, the median rose 7%, from 99 days in 2015/2016 to 106 days in 2016/2017.
  • The average number of charges in adult criminal court cases increased from 2.9 in 2007/2008 to 3.4 in 2016/2017. In youth court, the average rose from 3.3 to 3.9 over the same period.
  • Slightly more than half (54%) of youth court cases resulted in a guilty finding in 2016/2017. In adult criminal court, closer to two-thirds (63%) of cases resulted in a guilty finding.
  • Custody was imposed in 38% of guilty adult criminal court cases in 2016/2017. In youth court, where the Youth Criminal Justice Act requires that all reasonable alternatives to custody must be considered, 13% of guilty cases received a custodial sentence.
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As one of the fundamental components of the criminal justice system in Canada, along with police and the correctional system, the courts interpret and apply the law. They provide an impartial forum to resolve disputes and to enforce laws in a fair and rational manner, without regard to the government's wishes or the weight of public opinion (Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association 2018).

The justice system in Canada makes a distinction between adults and youths accused of committing criminal activity. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) replaced the Young Offenders Act in 2003, bringing with it the principle of "fair and proportionate accountability that is consistent with the greater dependency of young persons and their reduced level of maturity" (YCJA, s. 3(1)(b)(ii)). The YCJA aims to divert youth offenders involved in less serious types of crime with extrajudicial measures such as warnings or cautions. For those youth who do make it into the court system, the YCJA offers sentencing options not available to adults, such as deferred custody and supervision orders, intensive support and supervision, and orders to attend a non-residential program (Taylor-Butts and Bressan 2009) and stipulates that all alternatives to custody that are reasonable in the circumstances must be considered prior to committing a young person to custody (Youth Criminal Justice Act 2002). As a result of the differing treatment of adult versus youth accused within the Canadian justice system, the characteristics of cases and charges in youth courts differ from adult criminal courts. Therefore, comparisons between adult criminal and youth courts should be made with this context in mind.

Using data from the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS), this Juristat article presents an overview of information from both adult criminal and youth courts in Canada in 2016/2017. It highlights key indicators such as the number of completed cases and charges, the types of offences heard by the courts, decisions, sentences, and the length of time it took to complete charges.

A follow-up Juristat article will be released in 2019 that will focus on charge processing times using the most up-to-date ICCS data. The article will expand upon the time processing analysis presented here and will introduce new indicators.

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Explanation of Integrated Criminal Court Survey terminology

Completed charge: A formal accusation against an accused person or company involving a federal statute offence that has been processed by the courts and received a final decision.

Completed case: One or more charges against an accused person or company that were processed by the courts at the same time and received a final decision.

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey currently publishes data based on the concept of completed charges and completed cases. While both of these measures are useful in examining various characteristics of court data, work is currently being undertaken to develop additional measures that would better reflect court workflow in the provinces and territories. One of these new indicators is an information-based concept of the case. This combines all charges against an accused that are laid under a single information (An information is a written document that is sworn under oath, typically by a police officer, to a justice of the peace that alleges a person has committed a criminal offence. The laying of an information initiates criminal proceedings against an accused.).

A project examining the feasibility of producing indicators of pending or actives cases/charges in addition to completed cases/charges is also being developed.

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Completed cases and charges down for youth in 2016/2017, up for adults

The annual number of completed cases in youth court has been steadily declining over the period 2007/2008 to 2016/2017, with the exception of a slight increase in 2008/2009. In adult criminal court over the same period, the number of cases increased in the early part of the decade before declining for six consecutive years. In 2016/2017, the number of cases in adult criminal court increased for the first time since this period of decline began in 2010/2011. There were 357,642 completed cases in adult criminal court in 2016/2017, 2% higher than in 2015/2016 (351,061 cases) but 9% lower than in 2007/2008 (393,193 cases). In youth court, there were 29,172 completed cases in 2016/2017, 8% fewer than in 2015/2016 (31,718) and 50% fewer than in 2007/2008 (58,710) (Chart 1).

Chart 1 Cases completed in adult criminal and youth court, Canada, 2007/2008 to 2016/2017

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1. The information is grouped by Case year (appearing as row headers), Adult and Youth, calculated using number of adult criminal court cases and number of youth court cases units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Case year Adult Youth
number of adult criminal court cases number of youth court cases
2007/2008 393,193 58,710
2008/2009 398,697 58,968
2009/2010 410,051 56,859
2010/2011 409,957 53,494
2011/2012 394,116 48,952
2012/2013 387,614 45,441
2013/2014 379,058 40,374
2014/2015 352,019 33,674
2015/2016 351,061 31,718
2016/2017 357,642 29,172

When looking at charges, rather than cases, it is noted that the number of completed charges in youth court also declined over the period 2007/2008 to 2016/2017. In adult criminal court, charges followed a similar trend to cases, with the exception of an increase in 2015/2016. There were 1,227,546 completed charges in adult criminal court in 2016/2017 and 113,943 in youth court.

As has historically been the case, males made up the majority of accused in both adult criminal and youth courts in 2016/2017. In particular, males were involved in four out of five cases in adult criminal court (80%), while they made up a slightly smaller proportion in youth court, at around three out of four cases (77%).

While a direct comparison to police-reported crime cannot be made,Note  trends in police-reported incidents for both adult and youth accused have closely mirrored the trends seen in adult criminal and youth court over the past decade (Allen 2018).The observed increase in the number of completed court cases at the Canada-level in 2016/2017 was not reflected in every province and territory (Table 1). While completed cases increased 2% overall in adult criminal court between 2015/2016 and 2016/2017, seven jurisdictionsNote  reported decreases with the largest being recorded by the Northwest Territories (-17%) and Yukon (-14%). Six jurisdictions saw increases, with the largest reported by Quebec (+9%) and Newfoundland and Labrador (+3%). In youth courts, the volume of completed cases decreased 8% nationally, and every jurisdiction reported a decrease with the exception of Nunavut (+22%).

Average number of charges in a case increased

Over the past decade, the average number of charges per case has increased for both adult criminal and youth court cases. This increase was fairly gradual until 2014/2015 in youth court and 2015/2016 in adult criminal court, when it accelerated. In 2016/2017, there was an average of 3.4 charges per case in adult criminal court, a 17% increase from 2007/2008 (2.9 charges per case). In youth court, there was an average of 3.9 charges per case in 2016/2017, corresponding to an increase of 20% since 2007/2008 (3.3 charges per case) (Chart 2). What this means is that while there were fewer cases completed in both adult criminal and youth court in 2016/2017 than a decade earlier, there were substantially more charges per case. Similarly, the average number of appearances in a case has also increased for adult criminal and youth court over the same period; in adult criminal court it rose from 6.7 appearances per case in 2007/2008 to 7.7 in 2016/2017, while in youth court it rose from 5.6 appearances per case to 7.0. Combined, these increases indicate that cases may have become more complex over time.

Chart 2 Average number of charges in a completed case in adult criminal and youth court, Canada, 2007/2008 to 2016/2017

Data table for Chart 2 
Data table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 2. The information is grouped by Case year (appearing as row headers), Adult and Youth, calculated using number of charges in a case units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Case year Adult Youth
number of charges in a case
2007/2008 2.9 3.3
2008/2009 3.0 3.3
2009/2010 3.0 3.3
2010/2011 3.0 3.4
2011/2012 3.0 3.5
2012/2013 3.1 3.5
2013/2014 3.0 3.5
2014/2015 3.1 3.7
2015/2016 3.3 3.9
2016/2017 3.4 3.9

Five offence types made up nearly half of all completed cases in adult criminal and youth courts

In adult criminal court cases, the five most common offences in 2016/2017 were theft, impaired driving, failure to comply with a court order, common assault and breach of probation, which represented 47% of all completed cases.Note  These same five offences were the most common in 2015/2016, and made up 48% of all completed cases then.

In youth court cases, the five most common offences in 2016/2017 were theft, offences under the YCJA, common assault, break and enter and major assault, which represented 44% of all completed cases in that year. This is similar to the previous year, when the five most common offences of theft, offences under the YCJA,Note  common assault, break and enter, and failure to comply with a court order also made up 44% of all completed cases (Chart 3).

Chart 3 Five most frequent offences in adult criminal and youth court, Canada, 2016/2017

Data table for Chart 3 
Data table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 3. The information is grouped by Offence (appearing as row headers), Adult and Youth, calculated using number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Offence Adult Youth
number percent number percent
TheftData table Note 1 36,112 10 3,234 11
Impaired driving 36,000 10 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Failure to comply with an order 34,341 9 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Common assault 31,554 9 2,593 9
Breach of probation 31,337 9 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Offences against the Youth Criminal Justice Act Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable 2,648 9
Break and enter Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable 2,200 8
Major assaultData table Note 2 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable 2,096 7
All other offences 188,298 53 16,401 56

Patterns of court decisions stable in both adult criminal and youth court over time

At the Canada-level, the pattern of decisions rendered in adult criminal court has been stable over the last decade. In youth court, the pattern of decisions has also been fairly stable over time, although somewhat less so than in adult criminal court. The proportion of cases in adult criminal court that resulted in a guilty decision remained slightly below two-thirds, while in youth court, the proportion of guilty decisions has been getting slightly less frequent: from 60% of cases in 2007/2008 to 54% of cases in 2016/2017.

The proportion of cases that were stayed or withdrawnNote  in adult criminal court has been stable over the decade, at about one-third. In contrast, the proportion of stayed or withdrawn cases in youth court has increased from 38% of cases in 2007/2008 to 44% of cases in 2016/2017. Further analysis of the youth court data indicates that the proportion of cases that were specifically stayedNote  has increased from 17% to 20% over the same period, while the proportion that were specifically withdrawn has increased from 21% to 24%. In adult criminal court, these proportions have remained relatively unchanged.

Acquittals were infrequent, representing 3% to 4% of decisions in adult criminal court cases over the same period, and between 1% and 2% of decisions in youth court cases (Table 2).

While the overall proportion of guilty decisions in adult criminal court has been stable over the past decade, the proportion of guilty cases has ranged widely depending on the type of offence. For example, in 2016/2017 21% of attempted murder cases had a guilty decision, the lowest among all offences. In contrast, impaired driving cases had the highest proportion of guilty decisions, at 81%. The same is true in youth court, where 32% of failure to appear cases resulted in a guilty decision in 2016/2017 (the lowest among all offences), while 92% of unlawfully at large cases resulted in a guilty decision (the highest among all offences). In 2016/2017, among the five most common offences in adult criminal court, the proportion of cases with a guilty decision ranged from 44% for common assault to 81% for impaired driving. In youth court, the range was from 41% for theft cases to 77% for cases involving YCJA offences over the same period.

The proportion of guilty decisions for individual offence types has remained relatively stable over time. Some notable exceptions in adult criminal court include common assault and drug trafficking, both of which have shown a decrease in the proportion of guilty cases between 2007/2008 and 2016/2017 (from 51% to 44%, and from 57% to 46%, respectively). In youth court, there was greater variation over time; criminal harassment and disturbing the peace cases have shown some of the largest changes in the proportion of guilty cases over time (from 49% to 32% and from 53% to 35%, respectively).

Nearly 4 in 10 guilty adult criminal court cases received custody; about 1 in 8 for guilty youth court cases

Among cases that received a guilty decision in adult criminal court, approximately 38% received a custodial sentence in 2016/2017, a proportion that has increased slightly over the last decade. This proportion varied by jurisdiction, with Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) having the highest percentage (67%) and Nova Scotia the lowest (29%). One explanation for the high proportion of custody sentences in P.E.I. is the very high percentage of guilty impaired driving cases that are sentenced to custody within this jurisdiction (89% in 2016/2017 compared to 9% for the rest of Canada). Because one quarter of all guilty cases in adult criminal court in P.E.I. were impaired driving related, they contributed to a higher overall proportion of custodial sentences in that province compared to other jurisdictions.

In youth court, about 13% of guilty cases received a custody sentence in 2016/2017, a decrease from 16% in the previous year. Prior to that, the proportion of guilty cases receiving custody had been stable at between 15% – 16% for the decade. New Brunswick had the lowest proportion of custodial sentences among guilty youth cases, at about 6%. In contrast, Yukon had the highest proportion at 39% (Chart 4). Many of these same trends are observed when examining recent corrections data, with the exception of P.E.I.. While it had a high proportion of guilty youth cases that were sentenced to custody in 2016/2017, it had a low youth incarceration rate (Malakieh 2018).

Chart 4 Proportion of guilty cases sentenced to custody, adult criminal and youth court, provinces and territories, 2016/2017

Data table for Chart 4 
Data table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 4. The information is grouped by Provinces and territories (appearing as row headers), Adult and Youth, calculated using percent of guilty cases sentenced to custody units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Provinces and territories Adult Youth
percent of guiltyData table Note 1 cases
N.L. 33.8 6.8
P.E.I. 66.7 31.7
N.S. 28.5 8.9
N.B. 29.9 5.9
Que. 33.0 10.1
Ont. 33.7 10.5
Man. 49.5 17.5
Sask. 37.7 18.4
Alta. 44.8 15.6
B.C. 50.5 13.9
Y.T. 49.3 39.1
N.W.T. 39.6 12.5
Nvt. 35.4 13.9

The median length of custodial sentences in 2016/2017 was 30 days in adult criminal court and 50 days in youth court.Note  The longer median length of custodial sentences in youth court likely reflects the YCJA principal of reserving custody for only the most serious of cases. The median was unchanged from 2015/2016 in adult criminal court, while it increased 19% (from 42 days) in youth court.

Probation continued to be the most frequent sentence typeNote  in adult criminal court in 2016/2017 (44% of guilty cases), followed by custody (38%) and fines (31%). In youth courts, probation was also the most frequent sentence type (57% of guilty cases), followed by community service (23%) and custody (13%). As previously indicated, youth sentencing options differ from those for adults; for example, youth sentence options not available to adults include reprimands, orders to attend non-residential programs or intensive support and supervision programs, etc. Additionally, the way in which the same type of sentence is applied to youth may differ from how it is applied to adults.

Charge processing times increased in both adult criminal and youth courts

The median length of time required to complete an adult criminal court charge increased 10% to 124 days in 2016/2017, compared to 113 days the previous year. Among the jurisdictions, there was a wide variation in median charge processing times, from 36 days in Prince Edward Island to 227 days in Quebec.Note  Quebec has consistently had the longest median charge time of all provinces and territories over the past decade. It is important to note that municipal court data for Quebec are not included in these estimates and these charges are generally less serious in nature and tend to take up less time in court – hence their omission has been identified as a contributing factor to long charge times. As a result, an adjustment has been made to Quebec's data by adding additional charges to represent the missing municipal court data, and assigning a charge time of 1 day to these charges (Maxwell 2018). After adjusting for missing municipal court data in Quebec, the median charge processing time for the province decreased substantially, to 167 days in 2016/2017.

Taking the missing Quebec data into account, the adjusted median charge time for Canada in 2016/2017 decreases from 124 days to 117 days. The adjusted value in 2016/2017 is 10% higher than the adjusted value in 2015/2016, and is the highest median charge time in over a decade. Longer processing times were seen in conjunction with a greater number of completed charges in 2016/2017 compared to the year before. It is possible that this was a result of increased completion of older, pending charges in response to the Supreme Court of Canada's R. v. Jordan decision in July, 2016 that set time limits for the completion of criminal charges.Note 

Among the jurisdictions, the largest percentage increase in charge processing time between 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 occurred in the Northwest Territories (+30% or +19 days). The largest, and only, decrease in charge time occurred in Manitoba (-2% or -3 days) (Chart 5). Youth courts saw the median charge time increase in 2016/2017 (+7%), also reaching its highest value in over a decade. In youth courts, median charge times ranged from 29 days in Prince Edward Island to 134 days in both Ontario and Yukon. The largest percentage increase between 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 occurred in Yukon (+91% or +64 days).

Chart 5 Median charge time, adult criminal court, provinces and territories, 2015/2016 and 2016/2017

Data table for Chart 5 
Data table for Chart 5
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 5. The information is grouped by Province and territories (appearing as row headers), 2015/2016 and 2016/2017, calculated using number of days units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Provinces and territories 2015/2016 2016/2017
number of days
Newfoundland and Labrador 156 162
Prince Edward Island 35 36
Nova Scotia 136 138
New Brunswick 81 85
QuebecData table Note 1 201 227
Quebec (adjusted)Data table Note 2 141 167
Ontario 108 120
Manitoba 139 136
Saskatchewan 64 68
Alberta 108 113
British Columbia 71 80
Yukon 80 95
Northwest Territories 64 83
Nunavut 57 67

There was variation in median charge processing times by certain charge characteristics. For example, charges that resulted in an acquittal had the longest median charge time among decision types in both adult and youth court in 2016/2017 (312 days and 176 days, respectively). In contrast, charges that resulted in a guilty decision type had the shortest median charge time (106 days in adult criminal court, 91 days in youth court).Note 

Summary

The number of completed cases and charges were up in adult criminal court in 2016/2017, following several years of declines. The number of completed cases in youth court have continued their 10 year decline.

A handful of offences (theft, impaired driving, failure to comply with a court order, common assault, and breach of probation in adult criminal court; theft, offences under the YCJA, common assault, break and enter, and major assault in youth court) made up nearly half of all cases in both adult criminal and youth court, and these offences have consistently been among the most common over time.

While probation was the most frequent sentence in both adult criminal and youth court, the expected differences in sentencing were evident with about 4 in 10 guilty adult cases receiving custody in 2016/2017, and only 13% of guilty youth cases receiving custody.

The time taken to complete adult criminal court charges increased in 2016/2017 and reached its highest level in over a decade. Twelve out of thirteen jurisdictions reported higher median charge processing times in 2016/2017 compared to 2015/2016. Quebec continued to report the longest charge time among the provinces and territories, while Prince Edward Island reported the shortest.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Completed cases in adult criminal and youth courts, Canada, 2015/2016 and 2016/2017

Table 2 Completed cases by type of decision, adult criminal and youth courts, Canada, 2007/2008 and 2016/2017

Survey description

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) is administered by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (Statistics Canada) in collaboration with provincial and territorial government departments responsible for criminal courts in Canada. The survey collects statistical information on adult and youth court cases involving Criminal Code and other federal statute offences. Data contained in this article represent both the adult criminal court portion as well as the youth court portion of the survey.

All youth courts in Canada have reported data to the youth component of the survey since the 1991/1992 fiscal year. All adult courts have reported to the adult component of the survey since the 2006/2007 fiscal year, with the exception of superior courts in Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as municipal courts in Quebec. These data were not available for extraction from the provinces' electronic reporting systems and therefore, were not reported to the survey.

The primary unit of analysis is a case. A case is defined as one or more charges against an accused person or company that were processed by the courts at the same time and received a final decision. A case combines all charges against the same person having one or more key overlapping dates (date of offence, date of initiation, date of first appearance, date of decision, or date of sentencing) into a single case.

A case that has more than one charge is represented by the charge with the "most serious offence" (MSO). The most serious offence is selected using the following rules. First, court decisions are considered and the charge with the "most serious decision" (MSD) is selected. Court decisions for each charge in a case are ranked from most to least serious as follows: 1) guilty, 2) guilty of a lesser offence, 3) acquitted, 4) stay of proceeding, 5) withdrawn, dismissed and discharged, 6) not criminally responsible, 7) other, and 8) transfer of court jurisdiction.

Second, in cases where two or more charges result in the same MSD (e.g., guilty), Criminal Code sentences are considered. The charge with the most serious offence type is selected according to an offence seriousness scale, based on actual sentences handed down by courts in Canada. Each offence type is ranked by looking at (a) the proportion of guilty charges where custody was imposed and (b) the average (mean) length of custody for the specific type of offence. These values are multiplied together to arrive at the final seriousness ranking for each type of offence. If, after looking at the offence seriousness scale, two or more charges remain tied then information about the sentence type and duration of the sentence are considered (e.g., custody and length of custody, then probation and length of probation, etc.).

Cases are counted according to the fiscal year in which they are completed. Each year, the ICCS database is considered final at the end of March for the production of court statistics pertaining to the preceding fiscal year. However, these counts do not include cases that were pending an outcome at the end of the reference period. If a pending outcome is reached in the next fiscal year, then these cases are included in the completed case counts for that fiscal year. However, if a one-year period of inactivity elapses, then these cases are deemed complete and the originally published counts for the previous fiscal year are subsequently updated and reported in the next year's release of the data. Historically, updates to a previous year's counts have resulted in an increase of about 2%.

References

Allen, Mary. 2018. "Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2017." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association. 2018. Justice System. The Role of the Courts. (accessed July 16, 2018).

Malakieh, Jamil. 2018. "Adult and youth correctional statistics in Canada, 2016/2017." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

Maxwell, Ashley. 2018. "Adult criminal court processing times, Canada, 2015/2016." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

Public Prosecution Service of Canada. 2014. Public Prosecution Service of Canada Deskbook. Catalogue no. J77-2/2014E. (accessed May 31, 2018).

R. v. Jordan. 2016. SCC 27, [2016] 1 S.C.R. 631.

Taylor-Butts, Andrea and Angela Bressan. 2009. "Youth crime in Canada, 2006." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

Youth Criminal Justice Act. S.C. 2002, c.1. Parliament of Canada.

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