An Examination of the Toronto Police Service Youth Referral Program

Summary and Conclusions

In retrospect, it may have been overly optimistic to believe that one could achieve a substantial reduction in the use of youth court by implementing the TPS-YRP. The particular model that was used – one that did not challenge the ultimate authority of the individual front line police officer to decide on how court resources are used – may have ensured that the program would fail in achieving its most basic requirement (the reduced use of youth court). Changing the decision-making habits of literally thousands of police officers simply by giving them another choice on how to handle young people was not sufficient to get many police officers to divert very many cases from the youth court. The program as it was evaluated did, obviously, divert a small number of youths charged with theft under $5000 (approximately 9-12 per month) from the court system. For the most part, these youths would have received extrajudicial sanctions/alternative measures. We estimate that the cost of each youth diverted was approximately $2500. This is, we believe, a rather expensive price to pay to divert youths who otherwise would have probably been diverted from formal adjudication by the local crown attorney’s office. The vast majority of the youth who were referred to the program (estimated at between 1200 and 1300 youths of the total of 1487 referrals), therefore, were there as a result of what is typically referred to as “net widening” – the often unintended increase in the use of the institutions of social control. A small amount of net-widening in such circumstances is, probably, inevitable. In this case, however, most youths in the TPS-YRP were not supposed to be there. It is important, therefore, to look at how the goals of the TPS-YRP could have been accomplished.

We would suggest that in order to address the sensible goal of reducing the use of youth court for substantial numbers of cases, structural changes need to be made in how youths are referred to programs such as the YRP. In particular, we would suggest that the first step might be to create a more explicit policy on the use of youth court. Then, if the ultimate (police) decision about whether or not a youth should be sent to court were centralized, a smaller number of people would be clearly responsible for ensuring that the youth courts were used in a manner consistent with the YCJA.

We have suggested that this could be done at the police level – though likely not through the front line officers. It could be advantageous to have it done by prosecutors if Ontario were to implement some form of pre-charge extra-judicial sanction program. Indeed, we would urge the Government of Ontario to implement the full range of extrajudicial measures, including crown cautions and pre-charge extrajudicial sanctions. The general idea, however, would be that there would be an overall policy on the use of youth court and there would be a smaller number of people charged with the responsibility of implementing the policy and overall accountability for the results.

Whether the referrals come from the police or the Crown, the broker model itself appeared to us to be one appropriate way of connecting youths to programs or sanctions. For the most part, that part of the YRP ran smoothly. Nevertheless, we did note that there are structural changes which could be made which would reduce the amount of unexplained disparity in the outcome of similar cases that were handled through the YRP. This program was clearly popular with its youths, in part, we suspect, because youths thought that much worse things would happen to them if they did not cooperate with the program. We are not confident that youths would be so happy with the outcomes that were imposed on them if they had a full picture of the range of sanctions that apparently similar cases had imposed on them and if they knew that, in the absence of the program, most of them would not have been charged.

Finally, we would urge those responsible for programs such as this one to think a bit more carefully about the meaningfulness and the appropriateness or effectiveness of many of the sanctions that are imposed on youths. Many of the youths were assigned sanctions that appeared to us to be based on a theory that engaging in these required activities would be therapeutic. We know of no convincing evidence that would suggest that many of the sanctions (e.g., apologies to large corporations who had been victims of small thefts; essays, journals or posters) which appear to be rehabilitative in their orientation actually accomplished anything in the long term. If a program is not known to work, there are, we believe only two choices: do not use it, or use it enough only to find out whether it is effective. Changing behaviour – especially normative behaviour such as thefts by adolescents – is not likely to be easy. It may be that a focus on a sanction that is simply proportional to the seriousness of the offence is all that can be expected.

The issue of limiting the use of sanctions where the value of the sanction has not been demonstrated, and more care being spent on the severity of the sanctions – are, relatively speaking, rather easy to address. We should emphasize that the model that was developed here – a brokerage model for receiving cases from the police or Crown (under extra-judicial sanctions) – operated effectively and, most of the process goals (see Chapter 1 and Appendix A) were undoubtedly met. However, the data do not support the conclusion that most of the youths going to the program would otherwise have gone to court, and we have identified some problems in the manner in which sanctions were imposed. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that almost 1500 youths were referred to this program. They were dealt with quickly and, compared to the other large youth justice institution – the court – their involvement in this program was considerably less intrusive into their lives.

Like most pilot programs, this one ended. As we have already noted, knowing what we know now, we could not have recommended that it continue as it had been operating.  However, we would urge those interested in developing programs to divert youths from youth court to consider carefully the many aspects of this program that worked well. The lessons learned in setting up and running this program, if built upon so as to accomplish some of the other goals of the program, could lead to programs that would, indeed, accomplish all of the major goals related to the diversion of youths.

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