Police Discretion with Young Offenders

VI.  Conclusions

This report was commissioned by the Department of Justice in support of the implementation and evaluation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The research had two main objectives: to provide a comprehensive description of the ways in which police in Canada currently exercise their discretion with youth, and to identify and assess factors which affect that exercise of discretion. Our intention was to provide information which could be used in two ways:

  • as baseline data which can be compared in the future with similar data on the exercise of police discretion under the YCJA, in order to conduct an evaluation of the impact of the YCJA on police decision-making with youth, using a "pre-post" quasi-experimental design; and
  • to identify aspects of the policing environment and of police organizations, which policymakers and police management could attempt to modify, in order to support police officers in exercising their discretion in conformity with the intent and specific provisions of the YCJA.

Although there have been several in-depth studies of individual police services in Canada, no attempt has been made to analyze police decision-making on a national scale since the study carried out by Statistics Canada in 1976 (Conly, 1978) - and even that study was limited in the depth of information which it collected and the scope of the sample which it studied. Accordingly, we set ourselves the goal of gathering in-depth information, both qualitative and quantitative, on a nationally representative sample of police services. Since a substantial proportion of smaller cities and towns, and most rural areas, in Canada are provided with policing services by detachments of the provincial police, including the RCMP working under contract to provincial governments, we felt that the sample must include a substantial number of these detachments.

Possible sources of information on police decision-making include interviews with officers at all levels and in all units of the police organization, observation of their work during "ride-alongs", police agency documents, statistical data from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey and Incident-Based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey, operated by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, and the individual case files maintained by police agencies, either in hardcopy or on their Records Management Systems (RMS). We used all of these sources except police case files. Early in the design phase of this project, we were advised by representatives of several police services that it would be problematic to access these data; we recognized also that to collect file data on a substantial number of youth-related cases from a representative sample of Canadian police agencies would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

We conducted over 200 in-depth interviews police officers in 95 police services and detachments which are approximately representative of all police services in Canada - from all provinces and territories, all types of communities, and all types of police service, including independent municipal services, detachments of provincial police services including the RCMP, First Nations police services, and police training facilities. The sample included the police services in all of the largest cities in Canada, and a substantial number of police services and detachments in the smallest towns and the most remote rural areas of the country. We also analyzed aggregate UCR data for 1977-2000, and did detailed statistical analysis of UCR2 data on a large sample of individual young offender cases for 2001.

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