Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

2.0 Seriousness of the crime

There is a consensus in the literature on police discretion that the seriousness of the (alleged) offence is the most important situational factor affecting the exercise of police discretion with youth (Caputo & Kelly, 1997; Carrington, 1998a; Doob, 1983; Doob & Chan, 1982; Statistics Canada, 1999). As the seriousness of the offence increases, the likelihood of the exercise of discretion tends to decrease. Police officers appear to agree that many youth involved in minor crimes should be dealt with informally or a referral to a pre-charge diversion program (Caputo & Kelly, 1997). However, police perceptions of "minor" and "major" crime may vary across police services and across individual officers. Furthermore, the relationship between "seriousness" and the likelihood of charges being laid against an apprehended youth is not entirely straightforward; for example, offences against the administration of justice and possession of stolen property have higher charge rates than major assaults and drug trafficking (Chapter II, Table II.2 above; cf. Carrington, 1998a).

Apart from the Criminal Code classification of the offence, police perceptions of the seriousness of an offence have been found to be related to the use or presence of a weapon, and the degree of harm done, whether to the person or property of a victim. The presence of a weapon in a violent incident usually results in the incident being classified as involving an indictable, rather than a (less serious) hybrid offence. In his multivariate statistical analysis of UCR2 data for 1992 and 1993, Carrington (1998a) found that the presence of a weapon ranked third in importance among the thirteen situational and offender-related factors which he considered, and this was largely independent of whether or not a victim suffered injury. The value of the property involved and the level of injury (if any) to a victim had only moderate to low effects on the likelihood of charging: they ranked ninth and tenth among thirteen factors (Carrington, 1998a).

We asked officers whether the "seriousness of the offence", the presence or use of a weapon, and the extent of harm done to person or property play a role in their use of discretion with young persons. Table V.1 summarizes their answers.

Table V.1 Effects of offence seriousness, use or presence of a weapon, and harm done, on police decision-making
Not a Factor Minor Factor Factor Major Factor N
Seriousness 0 0 2% 98% 128
Presence of weapon <1% <1% 9% 90% 116
Harm done 0 0 12% 88% 116

Our respondents answered almost unanimously (98%) that they take the seriousness of the offence into account every time they deal with a youth-related incident. The large majority of officers indicated that the seriousness of the offence is the first factor they take into consideration in their decision-making. Further, in some cases, all other factors are considered to be secondary to the seriousness of the offence. These results confirm, once again, the consensus in the literature. However, since we did not go into detail with respondents about how they defined "seriousness", our findings on this issue share the lack of precision, and, to some extent, circularity, characteristic of many surveys of police views: respondents cite seriousness almost by definition as the principal factor in the decision to charge, and are not required to confront the contradictions implied by statistical evidence that some relatively "non-serious" offences such as bail violations and possession of stolen property have very high charge rates.

Table V.2 shows the percentage of apprehended young persons who were charged, by offence category, in the subset of police services included in our UCR2 analysis. The first column shows the actual percentage charged. Clearly, the type of offence has a large influence on the probability of a charge being laid: a youth apprehended for mischief or arson has a one in three chance of being charged; those apprehended for major offences against the person and offences against the administration of justice are almost sure to be charged. As we mentioned in Chapter II, these percentages suggest that the probability of charging is not related in a simple way to the "seriousness" of the offence, unless one believes that failure to appear in court, provincial traffic violations, etc. are exceeded in seriousness only by murder. The second column of percentages ("adjusted percentages") shows the result of a multiple regression analysis, in which the percentages are adjusted to remove the confounding effects of related factors, such as the youth's age and prior apprehensions. These are the percentages of youth apprehended for each category of offence who "would have been charged if everything about the offence and the offender were the same, except for the type of offence". For example, 86% of youth apprehended for robbery were charged, but the adjusted percentage is only 74%. This is because robbery tends to be committed by older youth with more prior apprehensions, etc., and these factors make robbers more likely to be charged; but 74% would have been charged if robberies were committed by youth who were of average age and with an average number of prior apprehensions, etc. [92]

Table V.2 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by offence, Canada (parts), 2001
Offence category % charged N Adjusted % charged N
All offences 56 38,727 52 30,812
Murder, attempt 100 27
Fail to appear 99 422
Provincial traffic 98 822
Bail violation 97 1 459
Young Offenders Act 97 650
Breach probation 93 347
Provincial liquor 91 1 827
Drinking-driving 90 172
Escape/UAL 88 311
Robbery 86 732 74 720
Dangerous operation of MV 86 95
Assault & sexual assault level 3 85 52
Possess stolen property 81 1 305 72 1 285
Indictable drug (trafficking, etc.) 74 1 061 67 1 014
Miscellaneous indictable person 74 151 72 146
Assault & sexual assault, level 2 72 1 239 63 1 201
Theft over 71 581 57 563
Weapons & explosives 62 403 46 399
Misc. provincial offences 61 894 50 839
Misc. Criminal Code traffic 58 62 55 51
Fraud 57 611 47 583
Sexual assault, level 1 57 412 61 367
Break & enter 55 2 183 48 2 034
Assault, level 1 53 3 758 47 3 601
Misc. summary & hybrid person 49 1 619 56 1 505
Miscellaneous 44 1 151 38 1 071
Summary & hybrid drug (possession) 40 3 052 38 2 751
Theft under 39 9 961 39 9 569
Mischief 33 3 052 33 2 836
Arson 31 316 37 277

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

Evidently, a considerable amount of the variation in charging rates for different types of offences is due to related factors, since the range of variation is narrowed considerably when the influence of other related factors is statistically controlled. The main related factors are the youth's age and prior record, which are both discussed below. Older youth commit more serious offences and have accumulated a longer record of police apprehensions. Thus, part of the reason why some offences are charged in relatively high proportions is that they are committed by older youth with longer prior records. Robbery and the more serious property offences (e.g. break and enter, possess stolen property, theft over) are examples (Tables V.3, V.4). When we control statistically for these related factors, the charge rate for these offences is reduced. On the other hand, arson and level 1 sexual assault tend to be committed in higher proportions by younger youth, with fewer prior apprehensions, so the charge rate increases when these related factors are statistically controlled.

Table V.3 Proportion of each age group apprehended, by offence category, Canada (parts), 2001
Age of the apprehended youth
12 13 14 15 16 17
Type of offence %
Robbery 1.1 1.5 2.0 2.2 2.6 3.3
Possess stolen property 2.1 3.4 3.5 4.7 4.9 4.5
Indictable drug (trafficking, etc.) 0.6 1.8 2.3 3.0 4.0 5.2
Misc. indictable person 0.2 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.7
Assault & sexual assault, level 2 3.5 3.2 3.3 3.8 4.3 4.6
Theft over 0.5 0.8 1.6 1.9 2.4 2.2
Weapons & explosives 0.9 1.0 0.9 1.3 1.4 1.7
Misc. provincial offences 0.8 1.5 2.1 2.7 3.2 3.9
Misc. Criminal Code traffic 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.4
Fraud 0.5 0.6 1.2 1.3 2.1 3.8
Sexual assault, level 1 2.6 1.9 1.6 0.9 0.9 0.7
Break & enter 5.6 4.8 6.2 7.3 7.0 7.1
Assault, level 1 15.6 12.5 12.0 12.1 11.1 10.1
Misc. summary & hybrid person 4.6 5.4 4.7 5.3 4.6 4.7
Miscellaneous 2.9 2.5 3.3 3.1 3.8 4.3
Summary & hybrid drug (possession) 2.5 5.8 7.7 9.6 11.0 10.7
Theft under 39.2 38.0 36.8 31.1 27.9 23.9
Mischief 14.6 13.2 9.3 8.3 7.7 7.8
Arson 1.9 1.4 1.1 1.1 0.5 0.5
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database

Table V.4 Proportion of apprehended youth, by type of offence and number of prior apprehensions, Canada (parts), 2001
Number of prior apprehensions
0 1 2 3-4 5+
Type of offence %
Robbery 1.5 2.2 3.6 4.0 5.6
Possess stolen property 3.5 4.1 4.9 4.8 7.9
Indictable drug (trafficking, etc.) 3.2 3.8 2.6 4.1 3.1
Misc. indictable person 0.4 0.5 0.5 0.6 0.8
Assault & sexual assault, level 2 3.6 3.7 4.3 4.2 5.6
Theft over 1.2 2.1 2.3 2.9 4.6
Weapons & explosives 1.1 1.6 1.6 1.8 1.2
Misc. provincial offences 2.1 3.6 3.1 4.2 3.6
Misc. Criminal Code traffic 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.3 0.1
Fraud 1.6 2.2 1.8 2.4 2.9
Sexual assault, level 1 1.3 1.0 1.3 0.8 1.0
Break & enter 4.9 7.4 8.5 9.7 12.3
Assault, level 1 11.2 13.0 13.3 13.2 10.0
Misc. summary & hybrid person 4.4 5.3 6.6 6.4 4.7
Miscellaneous 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.5 4.6
Summary & hybrid drug (possession) 9.8 8.7 8.3 7.4 5.4
Theft under 36.4 26.1 24.3 20.3 19.0
Mischief 9.3 10.3 8.6 8.9 7.5
Arson 1.1 0.9 0.9 0.4 0.3
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

2.1 Presence of a weapon

Our respondents were also virtually unanimous that the presence of a weapon in the commission of the crime had a major effect their decision-making with young persons. Many officers indicated that they take the use of weapons very seriously, due to the potential of increasing the harm done to victims. The only variations in weight given to weapons were in relation to the type of community and the level and type of youth crime in the community. Officers in rural areas and small town jurisdictions are most likely (96%) to rate the presence of a weapon as a major factor in their decision-making; those in suburban/exurban areas (90%) and metropolitan areas (83%) are less likely. We speculate that the reason for this gradient is that the higher number of incidents involving weapons in suburban/exurban and metropolitan areas has had a slightly desensitizing effect.

Officers in communities with a "normal amount" of youth crime were most likely (93%) to say that the presence of a weapon is a major factor in their decision-making; those in communities with "a lot" of youth crime were slightly less likely (86%), and those in communities with "not very much" youth crime were least likely (73%). Officers were slightly less likely to see a weapon as a major factor in their decision-making if they worked in a community with an identified problem with serious property crime (86% versus 94% of officers in other communities), a youth gang-related crime (84% versus 91%), or drug-related youth crime (86% versus 95%). They were much less likely to see a weapon as a major factor if they worked in a community with a youth prostitution problem (44% versus 93%).

Table V.5 shows the proportion of apprehended youth in the UCR2 data who were charged, by the presence and type of weapon. The UCR2 records information about weapons only in incidents involving an offence against the person; thus there are only small numbers of youth in this analysis. The use of a weapon, especially a firearm (which is rare) during the commission of a youth crime greatly increases the probability of charging, even when other relevant factors are controlled. The percentage charged for incidents involving a firearm is substantially reduced when other related factors are controlled, because the presence of a firearm usually results in the classification of the offence as a serious indictable offence; therefore much of the impact of this variable is already accounted for by the variable, "(legal) seriousness of the crime" (Section 2.0, above).

Table V.5 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by the presence and type of weapon, Canada (parts), 2001
% charged Adjusted % charged N
No weapon 47 43 1,018
Other weapon 64 63 6,091
Firearm 84 62 154

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

2.2 Harm done to a victim

The extent of harm done to person or property also has a substantial effect on police decision-making with youth-related incidents. All of our respondents indicated that they feel the extent of harm done is a factor (12%) or a major factor (88%) in their decision to charge, use AM, or proceed with informal action. The more harm that is done, either physically or psychologically, the less likely officers are to refer to alternative measures or deal with the incident informally. The great majority of officers at all levels of the organization consider the extent of harm done to be a major factor. However, this is slightly less important for practitioners, of whom 87% considered the extent of harm done to be a major factor, compared with 94% of supervisors, and 100% of officers in management positions.

There were small differences between officers in different types of communities in their assessment of the influence on their decision-making of the degree of harm suffered by a victim. Officers in rural and small town jurisdictions were more likely to consider the extent of harm done as a major factor (96%) than in suburban/exurban (90%) or metropolitan areas (83%). These differences highlight the effect that the type of community type seems to have on police decision-making. Perhaps this is the result of the greater social homogeneity and level of acquaintanceship, as a result of which the likelihood that the officer knows, or at least can identify with, the victim is higher in smaller communities. It could also be related to the perceived degree of seriousness of youth crime in the community: officers in communities with a significant amount of serious youth property crime were slightly less likely to consider harm as a major factor (83% versus 94% of officers in other communities), as were officers in communities with an identified problem of youth gang-related crime (80% versus 90%); those in communities with a youth prostitution problem were much less likely to consider harm done as a major factor (44% versus 92%).

Officers in jurisdictions which include a First Nations reserve were more likely to consider harm done to be a major factor (100% compared to 86% of officers in other jurisdictions) - possibly reflecting the more tightly-knit community of the reserve.

Table V.6 shows the relationship in the UCR2 data between injury to a victim and the likelihood of charging. Major injury greatly increases the probability that charges will be laid. The increase is much less when other related factors are controlled, because major injury usually results in the classification of the offence as a serious indictable offence; so much of the impact of this variable is already accounted for by the variable, "(legal) seriousness of the crime" (Section 2.0).

Table V.6 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by the type of injury to a victim, Canada (parts), 2001
Type of injury % charged Adjusted % charged N
None/minor/unknown 61 48 7 153
Major injury 89 60 179

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.


[92]Some offence categories were omitted from the multiple regression analysis because there were too few youths in the "not charged" group for reliable statistical analysis; also, a few youth in each category were excluded because, according to the UCR2 Survey, the reason why they were not charged was not police discretion but some other factor beyond the control of police.

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