Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

7.0 Prior record: contacts, alternative measures, charges, convictions

A record of prior convictions or prior contacts with the police has been found to be strongly positively associated with the likelihood of being charged (Conly, 1978; Doob, 1983; Doob & Chan, 1982; Ericson, 1982). Whether or not it led to charges or a conviction, contact with police labels a youth as a probable delinquent, increasing the probability of formal treatment on subsequent contact. Doob & Chan’s (1982) statistical analysis of police dispositions found that prior contacts was one of the strongest, if not the strongest correlate of the decision to charge. On the other hand, Conly found that juveniles who had previously been charged were charged in the current instance at a much higher rate (52%) than those who had been previously contacted and not charged: the likelihood of the latter being charged (28%) was practically the same as that of youth who had no record of prior contacts (27%) (1978: 30).

We asked respondents to consider the effects on their decision-making with apprehended youth of prior contacts with police, prior referrals to alternative measures (especially in jurisdictions that use pre-charge diversion), prior charges, and prior convictions. However, none was inclined to differentiate among these. Almost all (96%) of our respondents said that prior record (in any and all forms) is a major factor (87%) or a factor (9%) in their decision-making process with youth-related incidents. Officers repeatedly emphasized that they consider a youth’s prior record as important as the seriousness of the offence. They consider both of these factors together, and invariably they are the first and principal factors which officers say that they take into consideration.

Figure V.4 shows the regional distribution of answers to this question. Quebec is the exception, perhaps because of the more welfare-oriented approach to juvenile justice in that province, and perhaps also because police do not make the final decision to charge in that province (although prior record is clearly a major factor in British Columbia, the other Crown-screening province). This consideration is reminiscent of Black & Reiss’s (1970) observation that, in their study, prior record was less important to patrol officers, who only made the decision to arrest, than to youth bureau officers, who decided whether to refer the youth to juvenile court (i.e. lay a charge).

Figure V.4 Regional distribution of views on the impact on decision-making of the youth’s prior record

Figure V.4 Regional distribution of views on the impact on decision-making of the youth’s prior record - 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

Officers who work in communities with serious violent youth crime are less likely to say that the youth’s prior record is a factor or major factor in their decision-making (80% versus 90% of other officers). Officers in agencies which police a First Nations reserve are also less likely (81% versus 89% of other officers). Those who work in communities with a youth prostitution problem are more likely to take prior record into account (100% versus 86% of other officers).

School Liaison/Resource Officers are less likely to view prior record as a major factor than officers in other assignments (Figure V.5). SLO’s suggested that there is much more to a youth-related incident than the nature of the offence and the offender’s prior record. They did not imply that prior record is of no importance, but said that it is not the first factor which they take into account. Working in the school environment, they also consider the student’s grades and relations with peers and teachers, as well as the nature of the offence. Prior record becomes much more important to SLO’s if it is lengthy and involves incidents of the same type.

Analysis of UCR2 data confirms that prior apprehensions by the police play an extremely significant role in the decision to charge and apprehended youth (Table V.12). Even when related factors such as the youth’s age (Table V.13, below) and the seriousness of the offence (Table V.4, above) are controlled, the probability of a charge being laid rises with increasing numbers of prior apprehensions, from 32% of first offenders to 66% of youth with five or more priors.

Figure V.5 Views on the impact of the youth’s prior record, by the officer’s location of service

Figure V.5 Views on the impact of the youth’s prior record, by the officer’s location of service - 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

Table V.12 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by the number of prior apprehensions, Canada (parts), 2001
Number of prior apprehensions % charged Adjusted % charged N
0 (first offender) 40 32 18,341
1 59 47 5,205
2 69 55 2,377
3-4 76 60 2,100
5+ 85 66 2,789

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

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