Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

3.0 The role of the victim

The victim's preferences, the type of victim, and the relationship between the victim and the offender are areas that have not been explored in depth in Canadian research. Doob (1983) is ambivalent concerning the impact of the victim's preference: on the one hand, "…victims seemed to have an important part in the process of bringing the juvenile to the attention of the Youth Bureau and perhaps in the disposition finally decided on by the bureau", and the victim's request was found by multiple regression analysis to be a significant correlate of the disposition (1983: 159-161); on the other hand, "…officers were polite in dealing with [victims], but explained that the decision on the appropriate decision was one that they alone would make….the victim does not play an important part because of the nature of the decision process" (1983: 160-161; emphasis in the original). Ericson (1982) found that the police complied with the complainant's wishes totally or partly in two-thirds of the cases which he studied[93]. Carrington (1998a) found that incidents involving an identified victim were more likely to result in a charge, thus reinforcing Black and Reiss's argument that a victim/complainant can make a valuable contribution to the quality of the evidence[94]. Carrington (1998a) also found that incidents in which the victim was a stranger to the apprehended youth were more likely to result in a charge than those involving family members or friends.

We asked officers if the wishes of the complainant, the type of victim (person or business) or the relationship between the apprehended youth and the victim (friend, family, stranger) had any effect on their decision-making. Table V.7 summarizes the answers.

Table V.7 The role of the victim in police decision-making
Not a Factor Minor Factor Factor Major Factor N
Victim Preference 4% 40% 40% 16 120
Type of Victim 81% 16% 3% 0 95
Relation to Offender 60% 30% 10% 0 93

3.1 The victim's dispositional preference

Respondents were fairly evenly divided on whether they consider the preferences of the victim on a consistent basis. 44% of respondents suggested that victim preference plays little or no role in their decision-making. However, others suggested that their employer is the public, and that listening to and following the wishes of the victim is central to doing their job properly. According to many officers, difficulties arise when a victim would like a young person charged for a relatively minor offence, but the officer feels that using informal action or alternative measures would be much more appropriate, given the nature of the offence and the characteristics of the young person. It was this hypothetical example that particularly elicited conflicting opinions concerning the role of the victim's preference. The majority of officers who rated victim preference as a secondary factor cited their belief that they must balance the rights of the victim with the best course of action for the administration of justice. In many cases, officers will go to great lengths to explain to the victims why alternative measures or conferencing would be a much more suitable course of action for crimes such as mischief and minor theft. Several officers volunteered the hypothetical example of a store manager who wants a charge laid against a youth caught shoplifting; the officer might well decide that a referral to alternative measures was more appropriate, and would politely but firmly make it clear that this decision was up to him/her, not the victim (cf. Doob, 1983: 160).

Officers in rural or small town jurisdictions are more likely to consider the preferences of the victim as a factor (47%) or major factor (20%) than those in suburban/exurban (36%/18%) or metropolitan areas (35%/10%). These differences offer further support to the notion that police in rural areas or small towns are more influenced by public opinion, or officers' perceptions of the expectations of the public. Similarly, officers in police agencies whose jurisdiction includes a First Nations reserve are more likely to consider the victim's preference to be a factor or major factor (65% versus 54% of officers in other police services).

Officers are less likely to consider the victim's preference to be a factor or major factor in communities which have "a lot" of youth crime (45%), versus "a normal amount" (63%), or "not very much" youth crime (83%); and/or in communities which have an identified problem of youth-related serious property crime (45% versus 70% of officers in other communities), youth-related serious violent crime (48% versus 58%), or a youth gang problem (48% versus 58%). Apparently, police are less able, or perhaps less willing, to respond to victims' preferences when they are burdened by the volume or seriousness of youth crime. Officers are also less likely to consider the victim's preference to be a factor or major factor in communities with a substantial amount of administration of justice offences involving youth (49% versus 60%).

In all provinces and territories, police officers take victim preference into consideration, but to varying degrees. Figure V.1 shows the regional variations. There are also slight variations on this issue between officers who work in agencies which police aboriginal populations versus those which do not. In both cases, the majority of officers consider the preferences of the victim as a factor or major factor; however, officers who work in an agency which has jurisdiction over a First Nations reserve are more likely (65%) to consider the victim's preference to be a factor or major factor than those who do not (54%). There are no significant ifferences for police who work in agencies which police off-reserve aboriginals.

Our data suggest that the gender of the police officer affects his or her view of the importance of victim preference: female officers are more likely (67%) to take the victim's preferences into consideration than males (57%).

Figure V.1 Regional distribution of views on the impact of the victim's preference

Figure V.1 - Regional distribution of views on the impact of the victim's preference - 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

Sources: 1977-1996: Carrington (1999); 1997-2000: UCR Survey.

The officer's level of authority and location of service are also related to the degree to which victim preference influences decision-making. Officers in management positions place less emphasis than the practitioner on victim preference: 43% of the former versus 60% of the latter said that victim preference is a factor or major factor in their decision-making with young offenders. The location of service also differentiates the views on this question (Figure V.2).

Figure V.2 Views on the impact of victim preference, by location of service

Figure V.2 Views on the impact of victim preference, by 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

The majority (71%) of officers who work in a youth squad are less influenced by victim preference, seeing it as only a minor or secondary factor; whereas those working in patrol, as school liaison officers or in General Investigative Services are more likely to view victim preferences as a factor or major factor. Youth squad officers told us that their primary focus is on the young person and not only the characteristics of the offence. They see their role as finding the best course of action for that particular youth; thus, they tend to view the preferences of the victim as something which they take into consideration after other factors (e.g. the seriousness of the offence and the prior record of the offender).

Experienced and less experienced officers also differed in their views on the weight that is placed on the preferences of the victim also differ. The great majority (83%) of officers with five or fewer years of service felt that victim preference is a factor or a major factor in their decision-making; whereas, fewer officers (56%) with six or more years of service took this position.

3.2 Type of victim

The great majority of police officers (81%) do not take the type of victim (person or business) into consideration at all when deciding what course of action to take with a youth-related incident; 16% characterized it as a minor or secondary factor, and 3% said that this is a factor (none identified it as a major factor). Officers working in communities with a problem with serious violent youth crime are more likely to consider the type of victim as a factor (10% versus 1% of officers in other communities); those working in a community with a youth prostitution problem are less likely to consider it: 100% of them said that they do not take the type of victim into account at all in their decision-making with youth.

3.3 Victim-offender relationship

Almost all of our respondents (90%) did not see the relationship between the offender and the victim as significant (a factor or major factor) in their decision-making. However, there were variations related to the type of community. The relationship between the offender and victim is more likely to be cited as a factor or major factor by police working in rural and small town agencies (54%) than in suburban (47%) or metropolitan jurisdictions (23%). Once again, we speculate that the relative impersonality of metropolitan policing explains this phenomenon. Officers working in a community with an identified youth gang problem were slightly more likely (47% versus 38% of officers in other communities) to consider any relationship between the victim and the offender as a factor or major factor in their decision-making with youth.

Analysis of UCR2 data suggests that the relationship between a victim and an apprehended youth plays a significant role in the decision to charge, even when other relevant factors are controlled (Table V.8). (This variable is coded in the UCR2 only for incidents involving an offence against the person.) The probability of a charge is higher if the victim is a parent or close friend, and lower if s/he is another family member (presumably a sibling) or an acquaintance. As with other circumstances of the incident, the percentages differences are much reduced when other factors are controlled, because young persons tend to commit different types of offences against different types of people: robbery and major assault and sexual assault against strangers, and level 1 sexual assaults against siblings and close friends (Table V.9).

Table V.8 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by the relationship between a victim and the apprehended youth, Canada (parts), 2001
Victim-youth relationship % charged Adjusted % charged N
Parent 78 67 179
Stranger 74 50 1,501
Close friend 64 54 338
Other family 57 47 786
Acquaintance 57 38 4,390

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

Table V.9 Proportion of apprehended youth, by type of offence and relationship with victim, Canada (parts), 2001
Parent Other family Close friend Acquaintance Stranger
Type of offence %
Assault & sexual assault, level 2 11.2 16.8 15.4 14.9 19.0
Robbery 0.6 0.0 2.4 4.9 29.8
Misc. indictable person 1.7 0.5 5.6 1.5 2.3
Sexual assault, level 1 2.2 14.4 9.5 4.2 1.2
Assault, level 1 62.0 51.5 47.3 53.5 29.4
Misc. summary & hybrid person 22.3 16.8 19.8 21.1 18.2

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database


  • [93] If an encounter was visible (in a public setting) and the type of mobilization was proactive, there was a higher probability of arrest (Ericson, 1982). However, it is difficult to discern whether these findings reflect incidents with adults or with youths.
  • [94]The UCR2 data analysed by Carrington (1998a) did not include the victim’s dispositional preference

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