The Impact of the Youth Criminal Justice Act on Police Charging Practices with Young Persons: A Preliminary Statistical Assessment
On the evidence of data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, the YCJA has been remarkably successful in bringing about changes in police charging practices with young persons which are consistent with its objectives, principles and provisions. Consistent with the principle of restraint and the objective of reducing the use of formal court proceedings with accused young persons, there was, in 2003, a substantial reduction at the national level and in most provinces and territories in the number of young persons charged or recommended by police to be charged, and a corresponding increase in the use of extrajudicial measures with apprehended young persons. There is no evidence of an increase at the national level in youth crime in 2003, or of net-widening by police in response to the coming into force of the YCJA. Consistent with the principles of accountability and proportionality, the substitution of extrajudicial measures for the laying of charges has been calibrated by police so that levels of charging were reduced in 2003 by more than one-third for minor offences such as theft under and drug-related offences, while levels of charging for serious property and violent offences (other than common assault) decreased only slightly.
In three provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec – while the levels of charging of young persons decreased in 2003, we could not confidently attribute the changes to the impact of the YCJA, because the use of charges with apprehended young persons had been decreasing for some years before 2003. In three other jurisdictions – Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Territory – there was no evidence of a reduction in charging of young persons in 2003.
We cannot be sure that the large reduction in charging of young persons in incidents involving drug-related offences was entirely due to the YCJA, because the Act came into force only two months before the Cannabis Reform Bill was introduced in Parliament. Although this Bill was not passed, its introduction probably resulted in a reduction in the use of charges in incidents of possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Our expectations based on the legislation were not fulfilled in the case of young persons accused of offences against the administration of justice – mainly violations of bail and probation conditions, and fail to appear for court. We had expected a substantial decrease in 2003 in the use of charges, and an increase in the use of extrajudicial measures with these non-violent, victimless offences. However, the data showed little change from previous years in the way in which police respond to youth accused of this type of offence.
With these minor exceptions, the initial impact of the YCJA on police charging practices with young persons appears to have been remarkably strong, immediate, and consistent with its objectives, principles, and provisions. Our review of the statute and related literature suggested certain research questions which we were unable to address with the available data. Some unanswered questions concern the types of extrajudicial measures which are being used by police under the YCJA: Do the choices of extrajudicial measures reflect the principles of restraint, accountability and proportionality? Do these choices represent a type of net-widening by police? Another unanswered question concerns the impact of Section 4(c), which states that extrajudicial measures are presumed to be sufficient to respond to a youth with no prior record who is accused of a non-violent offence. We were also unable to assess to what extent violations of probation conditions are being dealt with by police by way of an application for a review of the order, rather than laying a charge of fail to comply. Probably the most important question which necessarily remains unanswered by this preliminary assessment is whether the remarkable success of the YCJA in relation to police charging practices will prove to be temporary, and followed by a return to former police practices, or whether this new approach to the exercise of police discretion will be entrenched, and possibly even enhanced, in the future. A related question is whether the improved recording by some police services of the use of extrajudicial measures with young persons, which appears to have resulted from the coming into force of the YCJA, will result in increases in the future in the charging of young persons in these jurisdictions, as a result of the availability of more complete information on their previous encounters with police.
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