Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

4.0 Co-offenders and apparent gang-related crime

Youth gangs and crimes committed by groups of youth are currently a major concern for the public and police. According to a recent Canadian textbook for law enforcement students:

The primary factors [in allegedly increasing youth crime] seem to be drugs and gangs, which in themselves create tremendous frustration for police officers…Gangs are increasingly becoming a major problem for police officers…(Dantzker & Mitchell, 1998: 56)

Officers in approximately one-quarter of the police agencies in the sample told us that they face a significant problem with gang-related youth crime (Chapter III, Figure III.12, above). Although crimes committed by groups of youths and gang-related crime are distinct phenomena, they are often confused. Carrington (2002) found that 7% of youth-related incidents in Canada during the 1990's involved three or more apprehended youth, and another 17% involved two apprehended youth. Young offenders involved in incidents that involved at least three young persons were less likely to be charged than youth apprehended in pairs or alone (Carrington, 1998a).[95]

We asked officers whether they take co-offenders and gang-related crime into consideration when deciding how to deal with youth-related incidents. Table V.10 summarizes their answers.

Table V.10 Effect of gang-related crime and co-offenders on police decision-making
Not a Factor Minor Factor Factor Major Factor N
Gang-related 52% 9% 24% 15% 75
Group vs. lone offender 44% 42% 13% 1% 123
Adult/youth co-offender 61% 30% 8% 1% 95

4.1 Gang-related crime

Approximately half of the police officers whom we interviewed said that they do not consider whether a youth crime is gang-related when deciding how to deal with it. Another 9% said that this is only a minor factor in their decision-making. However, there are large variations among police services on this issue. 56% of respondents in metropolitan police services said it was a factor or a major factor; versus 33% of those in suburban/exurban police agencies, and 17% of rural and small town officers. This mirrors the variation among metropolitan, suburban/exurban, and rural/small town communities in the extent of the identified problem with youth gang-related crime (43%/32%/9%; see Chapter III, Section 4.3). Indeed, officers in communities with an identified youth gang problem are much more likely (78%) than officers in other communities (21%) to say that they consider whether a crime is gang-related to be a factor or major factor in their decision-making with youth. Officers in communities with "a lot" of youth crime are also more likely (61%) than those in communities with "a normal amount" (37%) or "not very much" (25%) to say that they consider whether a crime is gang-related to be a factor or major factor. Furthermore, officers in communities with almost any kind of identified problem of youth crime are more likely to consider the gang-related nature of a crime to be a factor or major factor: 47% of those in communities with serious youth property crime, versus 27% of officers in other communities; 73% in communities with serious violent youth crime, versus 25% of those in other communities; 46% in communities with a youth drug-crime problem, versus 28% in other communities; and 56% in communities with a youth prostitution problem, versus 36% in other communities.

There are also substantial regional variations in the extent to which officers take gang involvement into account in their decision-making with youth (Figure V.3). To some extent, these mirror regional variations in the identified incidence of youth gang problems (see Chapter III, Figure III.14).[96]

Figure V.3 Regional distribution of views on the impact on decision-making of gang-related crime

Figure V.3 - Regional distribution of views on the impact on decision-making of gang-related crime - If the following image is not accessible to you, please contact Youth Justice Policy at Youth-Jeunes@justice.gc.ca for an alternate format

Description

Female officers are considerably more likely than males to take gang involvement into account in their decision-making (63% versus 44%). Police officers working in a youth squad (72%) or as a school liaison/resource officer (75%) consider gang involvement in crime much more often in their decision-making than officers in patrol (33%), in management (60%), or in GIS (46%). This is not surprising, since most of the specialized programs that target youth gang members are located in the two former sections. Officers who had previously been assigned to a youth squad were more likely (86%) to consider apparent gang involvement than officers who had never served in a youth squad section (44%).

4.2 Group crime

Most respondents (86%) felt that whether the offender committed the crime alone or in a group did not play a significant role in their decision-making. However, officers who did indicate that they considered this to be a minor factor suggested that a youth who commits a crime in a group may have been influenced by peer pressure. They told us that it is important to determine, to the best of their ability, the role which each youth played in the commission of the crime. Thus, they may charge the ringleader, but refer the others to alternative measures. Officers who indicated that group versus lone offending is not a factor explained that each person in a group must be treated the same way (except for those that have different prior records). Thus, if they charge one youth in a group, they would charge all participants, since they do not believe they can assign degrees of responsibility. These officers told us the degree of responsibility can be determined by the Crown Attorney or in youth court, depending on the seriousness of the offence. This does not necessarily mean that these officers would not consider informal action for crimes committed in groups. Rather, they will treat each youth in the group in the same way, and in the same way as if s/he had committed the offence alone.

Views on this subject vary on most of the same dimensions as views on the salience of gang-related crime (above): officers in communities with a problem of serious youth property crime are more likely to consider group offending as a factor or major factor in their decision-making with youth (21% versus 5% of officers in other communities), as are officers in communities with a gang problem (20% versus 12%), a drug-related youth crime problem (17% versus 9%), and a problem of youth prostitution (33% versus 12%).

In addition, officers in communities with a significant off-reserve aboriginal population are less likely to consider youth crime committed by a group rather than an individual to be a factor or major factor (6% versus 17% of officers in other communities).

Views on this issue also differ by the gender and rank of the police officer. 16% of male police officers, but no females, consider co-offending to be a factor or major factor. Practitioners are slightly more likely than supervisors and officers in management positions to say that co-offending is a factor or a major factor (14% versus 8%).

Table V.11 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by whether accomplices were involved, Canada (parts), 2001
Number of persons apprehended % charged Adjusted % charged N
1 (only the apprehended youth) 57 57 19,536
2+ (group crime) 42 48 11,276
Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

Analysis of UCR2 data suggests that a youth who commits an offence with one or more accomplices is less likely to be charged, even when other factors are controlled (Table V.11). However, controlling for related factors increases the probability of co-accused youth being charged; this is because group crimes committed by youth tend to be the least serious, such as theft under, and to be committed by younger youth.

4.3 Adult co-offender

We also asked how police officers deal with youth-related incidents which involve an adult co-offender. The majority of respondents (90%) felt that this was not a factor or it was only a minor one. Views on this issue differ by type of police agency and community, and the officer's location of service, and level of authority. Almost every OPP officer (91%) indicated that s/he did not take adult co-offenders into consideration when deciding how to handle a youth-related incident. They informed us that the youth must be considered as an individual in the crime and that quite often the youths are sophisticated enough to have even orchestrated the crime. OPP officers told us they consider an adult co-offender as another element in the crime, but not as a reason to adjust their decision-making with the youth.

Officers working in communities with an identified youth gang problem are more likely to consider the involvement of an adult co-offender as a factor or major factor (17%) than officers in other communities (8%). Officers working in communities with a significant off-reserve aboriginal population are less likely to consider the involvement of an adult co-offender as a factor or major factor (4% versus 12%).

Officers who work in GIS are much more likely (56%) to take adult co-offenders into consideration in at least a minor way in their decision-making[97] with youth than officers in patrol (37%), youth squads (23%), school liaison officers (9%), or management (17%). This finding is explicable in terms of the types of youth-related cases which detectives tend to deal with in GIS. They are predominantly the more serious crimes and crimes that involve follow-up investigations. Further, although the majority of practitioners and supervisors do not consider the presence of an adult co-offender to be a factor, supervisors are more likely (43%) to consider it to be a minor factor than are practitioners (26%).


  • [95]Carrington (1998a) suggests this finding is partly a function of the types of crimes youth engage in as a group (i.e. property crimes). Youth apprehended alone were more likely to be implicated in 'other' Criminal Code offences, such as administration of justice offences.
  • [96] Apart from the high proportion of respondents in Quebec who identified gang-related crime as a factor or major factor; however, very few Quebec officers answered this question, so the percentage is no reliable.
  • [97] That is, to consider it as a minor factor, a factor, or a major factor.

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