The Impact of the Youth Criminal Justice Act on Police Charging Practices with Young Persons: A Preliminary Statistical Assessment

3.0 Findings

3.1 A substantial reduction in charging at the national level, and a corresponding increase in the use of extrajudicial measures

Figure 1 shows the per capita rates of young persons who were charged with criminal offences, [18] and who were chargeable but not charged (i.e. who were dealt with by extrajudicial measures), for Canada, for 1986 to 2003. In 2003, the rate of young persons charged was 3,760 per 100,000 youth population. [19] This is a drop of 1,440, or 28%, from the average annual rate during 1986-2002, under the Young Offenders Act . It is a drop of 733 per 100,000, or 16%, from the rate in 2002. [20] To put it differently: in 2003, approximately one out of six young people apprehended in Canada was not charged, who would have been charged if police had continued to use the same charging practices as in 2002.

Figure 1. Rates of young persons charged and not charged (extrajudicial measures), Canada, 1986-2003

Rates of young persons charged and not charged (extrajudicial measures), Canada, 1986-2003

Description of Figure 1.

Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. See Appendix Table A.1.

The data shown above for 2003 understate the impact of the new Act, because they include three months (January to March) when the YOA was in force. In Figure 2, the youth charge rates for 2001 to 2003 are compared by quarter. [21] As expected, there is very little difference between the rates in the first quarter of each year, but a large drop (20%) in the charge rate in the last three quarters of 2003, when the YCJA was in effect, compared with the same period in 2002. [22]

Figure 2. Rates of young persons charged, by quarter, Canada, 2001-2003

Rates of young persons charged, by quarter, Canada, 2001-2003

Description of Figure 2.

Note: The quarterly rates are annualized by multiplying by 4.
Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. See Appendix Table A.4.

Before attributing this drop in the charging of young persons to a change in police practices due to the Youth Criminal Justice Act , alternative explanations should be considered. One possibility is that this drop was simply the continuation of a downward trend in charging which predated the YCJA . Figures 1 and 2 show that this is not the case. Although the rate of charging declined from 1991 to 1999, by an annual average of 250 per 100,000, this trend ended in 1999, when the rate of charging stabilized at 4,500 per 100,000, and remained at approximately that level through 2002 (Figure 1). Although there was a small decrease in 2002, the drop in 2003 was much larger and happened suddenly in the second quarter (Figure 2).

Another possible explanation would be that other events than the coming into force of the YCJA were responsible for the drop in police charging. Again, Figure 2 is strong evidence against this rival explanation. The drop clearly occurred in the second quarter of 2003, just when the YCJA came into force, and persisted through the third and last quarters of 2003. We are not aware of any other event occurring in the second quarter of 2003 which could explain such a marked change in police charging practices.

Another possible explanation for the drop in 2003 in the rate of young persons charged is that it simply reflects a drop in youth crime: that is, in the rate of young persons apprehended by police for alleged offences. Thus, the drop in the charge rate would reflect not a change in police charging practices, but a change in young persons' criminal behaviour. [23] This explanation is also not consistent with the evidence presented in Figure 1. The decrease in the rate of youth charged was mirrored by an increase in youth who were not charged, so that the total number of chargeable youth – that is, the police-reported youth crime rate – did not decrease. In fact, it increased slightly to 8,232 per 100,000, which is almost exactly the same as the average rate during 1986 to 2002 (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Rate of chargeable young persons, Canada, 1986-2003

Rate of chargeable young persons, Canada, 1986-2003

Description of Figure 3.

Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. See Appendix Table A.1.

While the rate of youth charged decreased substantially from 2002 to 2003, the rate of youth who were chargeable but not charged (i.e. who were dealt with by extrajudicial measures) increased substantially, from 3,467 to 4,473 per 100,000 in 2003 (Figure 1). The number of chargeable youth who were dealt with by extrajudicial measures in 2003 exceeded the number charged, for the first time since these data have been reported by the UCR Survey (Figure 1). [24] In Figure 4, the rates of youth receiving extrajudicial measures for 2001 to 2003 are compared by quarter. There is an increase of 16% in the first quarter of 2003, perhaps in anticipation of the new Act, but a much larger increase (32%) in the use of extrajudicial measures in the last three quarters of 2003, when the YCJA was in effect, compared with the same period in 2002. [25]

Figure 4. Rates of young persons dealt with by extrajudicial measures, by quarter, Canada, 2001-2003

Rates of young persons dealt with by extrajudicial measures, by quarter, Canada, 2001-2003

Description of Figure 4.

Note: The quarterly rates are annualized by multiplying by 4.
Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. See Appendix Table A.4.

The change in 2003 in the relative use of charging and extrajudicial measures is shown in a different way in Figure 5 (below). The proportion of chargeable youth who were charged dropped to 46% in 2003, from an average of 63% during 1986 to 2002, and from 56% in 2002. Taking the lower figure of 56% for 2002 as the baseline, the figure of 46% for 2003 represents an absolute drop of 10%, and a relative drop of 19% in this indicator of police charging practices. The change from 2002 to 2003 is even more pronounced if it is broken down by quarter (Figure 6, below). Although there was a small decrease (4%) in the first quarter of 2003 compared with the first quarter of 2002, the decrease in the proportion charged was much greater in the last three quarters: 15%, 13%, and 10% respectively, for an overall decrease in the last three quarters of 13%. On a base proportion charged of 56% in the last three quarters of 2002, this absolute drop of 13% in the last three quarters of 2003 represents a relative decrease of 23%.

Figure 5. Proportion of chargeable young persons who were charged, Canada, 1986-2003

Proportion of chargeable young persons who were charged, Canada, 1986-2003

Description of Figure 5.

Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. See Appendix Table A.2.

Figure 6. Proportion of chargeable young persons who were charged, by quarter, Canada, 2001-2003

Proportion of chargeable young persons who were charged, by quarter, Canada, 2001-2003

Description of Figure 6.

Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. See Appendix Table A.5.

3.2 No evidence of increased youth crime or net-widening at the national level

The data presented in Figures 1 and 2 also bear on two possible unintended consequences of the YCJA : an increase in youth crime, and net-widening. For years after the Young Offenders Act came into force, many commentators argued that it had caused an increase in youth crime, because young persons considered the Act to lack meaningful consequences. [26] If the provisions of the YCJA are also an inducement to increased youth crime, this should be reflected in an increase in the rate of young persons apprehended by police and recorded as chargeable. However, this hypothesized effect might become evident rather gradually, as news about the supposed nature of the YCJA “got out on the street”, rather than being noticeable immediately in youth crime statistics for 2003.

Alternatively, an increase in the recorded number of chargeable young persons might be evidence of net-widening. That is the phenomenon in which the introduction of new informal criminal justice measures, which are intended to reduce the number of offenders subjected to formal treatment, has the unintended effect of increasing the number of offenders drawn into the system and subjected to informal measures. In relation to the provisions of the YCJA concerning charging, net-widening would have occurred if, as a result of the YCJA, any increase in the rate of young persons apprehended and dealt with by extrajudicial measures exceeded any decrease in the rate of young persons charged, resulting in an increase in the total rate of young persons apprehended by police. A weaker form of net-widening would have occurred if the YCJA resulted in police using more formal extrajudicial measures than they would have used under the YOA: e.g. an officer using a verbal warning where previously s/he would have taken no further action, or a formal caution in a case which s/he would previously handled with a verbal warning. An even weaker form of net-widening, which might nevertheless have consequences in the future, would have occurred if the provisions of the YCJA resulted in improved recording by police forces of their use of extrajudicial measures with chargeable youth. When police are deciding whether to charge or deal with a youth informally, they take into account his or her record on the police Records Management System (RMS) of previous apprehensions, whether or not they resulted in a charge or a conviction (Carrington and Schulenberg, 2004a, 2004c; Schulenberg, 2004). Thus, improved recording on the RMS of informally resolved apprehensions could result in increased levels of charging in future apprehensions.

If the YCJA resulted in an increased level of youth crime in 2003, this would be reflected, other things being equal, in a higher level of apprehensions of young persons, and therefore a higher recorded rate of chargeable young persons. An increased level of recorded chargeable youth could equally reflect net-widening, if police began to apprehend more young people although no more were committing crimes, or could reflect improved recording of apprehensions in which extrajudicial measures were used, although there was no increase in actual apprehensions. It is extremely difficult to distinguish to what extent each of these three phenomena is contributing to a change in the recorded rate of chargeable youth. The available data do not address the fourth dimension of possible net-widening - increases in the level of formality of informal action (e.g. a move from verbal warnings to formal cautions) - since the data do not distinguish among the types of extrajudicial measures applied by police. [27]

It is difficult even to draw definite conclusions from UCR data about the rate of actual youth crime or the numbers of young persons to whom extrajudicial measures were applied by police (or, equivalently, who were “not charged”, prior to the YCJA). Changes in reported annual rates of chargeable young persons do not necessarily mirror changes in levels of actual youth crime, because only a small proportion of youth crimes are reflected in UCR statistics. [28] Therefore, even small annual fluctuations in this proportion could result in noticeable changes in youth crime statistics which were unrelated to changes in actual youth crime. For example, increased reporting of crime to the police by the public, perhaps because of a decreased public tolerance for minor youth crime, would produce an increase in the recorded youth crime rate (rate of chargeable young persons). So would improvements in the ability of police to clear, or “solve”, reported crime. Similarly, young persons to whom extrajudicial measures are applied by police are not always reported to the police service's Record Management System (RMS), hence to the UCR Survey, so changes in the rate of “youth not charged” may reflect changes in reporting rather than changes in actual police charging practices. In many cases, the question of whether a young person who is not charged is “chargeable” according to law and/or the definition used by the UCR Survey, and therefore properly reportable to the Survey, is not entirely clear. In other cases, the reporting policy of the police service or the capabilities of the police service's RMS may mitigate against reporting of youth who are chargeable but not charged. Thus, changes in reported rates of chargeable youth may reflect changes in reporting practices at the level of the police information system, rather than behavioural changes at the level of the individual officer. Improvements in the recording and reporting by police of youth receiving extrajudicial measures were especially likely in 2003, since the requirements for reporting extrajudicial measures to the UCR2 Survey were expanded and clarified, because of the YCJA. [29]

There is a prima facie suggestion in Figures 1 and 3 of a very small amount of net-widening and/or increased youth crime in 2003, since the increase in 2003 in the rate of youth receiving extrajudicial measures was larger by 273 per 100,000 than the decrease in youth charged. This accounts for the 3.4% increase in the rate of chargeable youth (Figure 3). However, in view of the considerations discussed in the preceding paragraphs, we believe that the data provide no evidence of an national increase in 2003 in youth crime or of police net-widening, other than possibly some improvement in police reporting of youth receiving extrajudicial measures. The rate of chargeable young persons in 2003 was 8,232 per 100,000, which is practically the same as the average rate of 8,200 during 1986 to 2002. The increase of 3.4% over the figure for 2002 is well within the range of annual fluctuations during 1986 to 2002: the average annual change in the chargeable rate (whether increase or decrease) during that period was 3.8%. Thus, the increase in 2003 of 3.4% may be simply a random annual fluctuation rather than a meaningful change. Furthermore, there has been a small upward trend in the rate of recorded chargeable youth since 1999, with changes of +8.2%, +4.3%, and -1.8% in 2000, 2001, and 2002 respectively (see Figure 3). These increases in recorded youth crime are very unlikely to be due to the YCJA, since they predate its coming into effect by up to 3 years.

Even if the small increase in chargeable youth in 2003 is not a random annual fluctuation or the continuation of a pre-existing trend, there are more plausible explanations than an increase in actual youth crime, or net-widening. In our view, part of the explanation lies in a temporary drop in 2002 in recorded youth crime in Quebec. The other part, we believe, is the improvement hypothesized above in the recording of young persons receiving extrajudicial measures in some police services' Record Management Systems.

In 2003, the number of recorded chargeable youth in Canada increased by 8,013 persons, [30] over 2002. An increase of 2,469 chargeable young persons was reported by police services in Quebec, and represents a return to the level reported by police in Quebec during 1991 to 2001 (see Figure A.5f in the Appendix). In other words, the “increase” in 2003 in recorded numbers of chargeable youth in Quebec was due to a temporary drop in 2002. Although we have no definite evidence, we would speculate that this temporary drop in 2002 was due to the extensive reorganization of policing which took place in Quebec in 2002: many police services were merged or ceased to exist, and responsibility for policing many small jurisdictions passed to the Sûreté du Québec (see Ministère de la Sécurité publique du Québec, 2002a, 2002b).

An additional increase in 2003 of 8,912 chargeable youth was reported by a group of police services in Ontario which all use a particular RMS. Prior to 2003, users of this RMS reported very low rates of chargeable youth who were not charged – in the range of 13% to 17%, compared to about 30% for Ontario as a whole. Suddenly, in 2003, the number of youth not charged reported by these particular police services increased by a total of 8,912 persons, bringing their reported use of extrajudicial measures (47% of chargeable youth) into the same range as that of other police services in Ontario in 2003 (49% of chargeable youth). It is highly improbable that these increases in reported chargeable youth represent an increase in actual youth crime, or youths apprehended, or the actual use of extrajudicial measures, when they occurred only in certain Ontario police services whose only common factor was the type of RMS, and whose jurisdictions were interspersed geographically among those of other police services which did not report such changes. A much more plausible explanation is an improvement in data capture for youth receiving extrajudicial measures, due to modifications in the RMS - possibly resulting from the enhanced reporting requirements of the UCR2 Survey arising from the implementation of the YCJA.

Thus, the small increase in the national rate of chargeable youth in 2003 can be accounted for by technical reporting factors, rather than any substantive change in the level of youth crime or the charging practices of police.[31] This is not to say that police charging practices did not change in response to the YCJA. On the contrary, there was a dramatic change: an decrease of 16% in the per capita rate of youth charged, and a corresponding increase in the rate of youth receiving extrajudicial measures. But the analysis above strongly supports the view that - once technical factors are taken into account - the increase in 2003 in the number of youth receiving extrajudicial measures did not differ appreciably from the decrease in the number of youth charged.


  • [18] Or recommended for charging in British Columbia and parts of Quebec (see footnote 10 above).
  • [19] All numbers cited in the text are taken from the Appendix Tables.
  • [20] The drop in charging in 2003 is 17% if Toronto is omitted from the data (see Section 2.3 above for the reason for omitting Toronto ).
  • [21] Youth population estimates as of July 1 of each year were used to calculate annualized rates per 100,000 for each quarter of the year. Since the population changes slightly during the year, this procedure may have resulted in very slight under- or over-estimates of the rates for a given quarter, but these possible over- or under-estimates would be consistent over corresponding quarters for the three years and therefore would have no effect on the comparisons across the three years.
  • [22] The drop in charging in the last three quarters of 2003 is 21% if Toronto is omitted from the data (see Section 2.3 above).
  • [23] Or the success of the police in detecting crime and identifying young offenders.
  • [24] Data on youth charged and not charged have been collected by the UCR Survey since 1977; for the years prior to 1986, see Carrington, 1999.
  • [25] The increase in the rate of youth receiving extrajudicial measures in the last three quarters of 2003 is also 32% if Toronto is omitted from the data (see Section 2.3 above).
  • [26] These commentators were not deterred by the fact that there was practically no increase in recorded youth crime during the period when the Young Offenders Act was in force (Carrington and Moyer, 1994; Carrington, 1999).
  • [27] See Section 2.1 above.
  • [28] Although precise data are not available, victimization surveys suggest that fewer than 50% of crimes with victims are reported to the police; the proportion of victimless crimes reported is probably much lower. Of crimes reported to police, fewer than 50% are cleared, i.e. one or more perpetrators are identified and sufficient evidence is available that the offender(s) are chargeable. Thus, substantially fewer than 25% of young offenders are recorded in the UCR statistics (Frank and Carrington, 2003).
  • [29] See Section 2.1 above.
  • [30] This is the actual number, not the per capita rate.
  • [31] While this statement is true at the national level, it appears that there may have been increases in 2003 in the level of youth crime and/or net-widening by police in certain provinces and territories (see Table 1, below). However, the populations of these provinces/territories are so small relative to that of Canada that they have little impact on the aggregate national picture.

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