Pre-Trial Detention Under the Young Offenders Act: A Study of Urban Courts

3. Characteristics of Youth Detained by Police: What Factors Affect Police Decisions to Detain?

3. Characteristics of Youth Detained by Police: What Factors Affect Police Decisions to Detain?

Past research has found that both socio-demographic characteristics of the accused and legal characteristics relating to the alleged crime and the criminal record of the accused affect police decisions to arrest and detain youth. [31] Police also listen to the wishes of the victim - with regard to, for example, restrictions on victim-accused contact. In addition, observational studies have found that the "demeanour" of the young person as presented to the investigating officer influences police actions. Furthermore, some young persons are held for a bail hearing because, in effect, the police lack discretion to release - this is the case when there is a warrant for the youth’s arrest.

In addition to personal and case characteristics, policies and typical practices of police services are influential. In this research, in one community, 80 percent of young persons were detained by police (Table 3.1). This high detention rate suggests that the pre-trial detention of young persons is normative. [32]

3.1 Demographic and Social Characteristics of the Young Person

Table 3.1 [33] shows the social characteristics of police-detained youth in Halifax-Dartmouth, both Toronto courts, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver and Surrey [34] as well as the sample as a whole. Although every effort was made to obtain socio-demographic data on all cases, this proved impossible. Moreover, the "not knowns" are not randomly distributed. More information on social characteristics was available for youth who went further into the system so that, for example, almost no information was available for persons who had all charges terminated without a sentence. Most information was available for youth who were the subject of pre-disposition (now pre-sentence) reports and those whose probation and custody files were accessible.

Table 3.1

3.1.1 Gender, Age and Race

In Halifax-Dartmouth, but in no other court, males were detained in larger proportions than females, 30 percent compared to 15 percent. There was a tendency for larger percentages of females to be detained in the two Vancouver-area courts.

Age, while clearly a demographic variable, differs from gender and race in that older youth are regarded as more accountable and responsible for their actions than younger persons. Age therefore combines both social and legal elements. In three of the six locations in Table 3.1, the likelihood of pre-trial detention increased with age of the accused.

Race was operationalized as white, Aboriginal Canadian, black or African Canadian and other races such as south or east Asian. In one-third of Edmonton cases, race was not specified. Overall, Aboriginal Canadians were detained in larger proportions than whites, and this was especially noticeable in the western Canadian cities other than Surrey. In Toronto, young persons of "other" race were detained least often (39 percent), followed by whites (53 percent), blacks (61 percent) and Aboriginal Canadians (75 percent [35]).

3.1.2 Social Variables

While this report distinguishes between social and legal variables, bail decisions - by virtue of the case law on the indicators of primary grounds - are more blurred than the distinction would suggest. For adults, the existence of community ties is an important indicator of likelihood of court attendance as required. Roots in the community are operationalized by such factors as employment status, family ties and substance abuse. We term these factors "socio-legal".

Living arrangements of young persons may be associated with police decisions for two quite different reasons. First, those who live in a family setting may be perceived as more likely to attend court because they have closer supervision. Second, police may assume that youth not living with their families are in need of child protection services - that is, detention may be seen as necessary because of the lack of a suitable residence. The data in Table 3.1 show that detention rates for different living situations tend to vary by location:

  • Persons living with one or two parents [36] are less likely to be detained than those living with other relatives or a guardian.
  • In three locations, a larger percentage of residents of foster or group homes were detained, when compared to those in familial settings. In Halifax and Edmonton, they were detained in smaller proportions.
  • Young persons who have no fixed address were by far the most likely to be held for a bail hearing in four locations (the exceptions were Edmonton and Vancouver).
  • Overall, persons living with friends or independently were detained in the same proportion as those living with their families.

We earlier speculated that the activity status of young persons might be associated with bail decision-making. This is because youth who neither attend school nor work may be seen as candidates for detention on the grounds that "idle hands beget the devil’s work" and/or that they are insufficiently "tied" to the community. The following quotes from two police reports prepared for judicial interim release proceedings seem to support this speculation.

He is neither attending school nor working and as a result seems to have plenty of spare time on his hands and obviously no one to ensure that he is under control.

He advises that he intends on enrolling at high school this fall. He is unemployed and has no source of income. … If the courts see fit to release this youth it is suggested that he be entered into some type of youth program to help occupy his time.

In every court but downtown Vancouver, inactive youth were detained in higher proportions than persons who were going to school or working.

In Winnipeg, police reports contain an item on the officer’s assessment of the young person’s involvement in a gang. Mention of gang associations was infrequent in the other sites and is not reported. In Winnipeg, 65 percent of those with suspected gang involvement were detained by police compared to 41 percent of those with no known association.


  • [31] See, for example, Carrington et al. (1988).
  • [32] The reasons for the police detention rate in this community are not known but could include: unfamiliarity with police arrest powers in the Criminal Code; a desire to avoid the accountability for the detain-release decision by passing it on to the court; or a desire to frighten or penalize young persons by placing them, temporarily at least, behind bars.
  • [33] Table 3.1 and subsequent tables with the same format are to be interpreted as follows. The number in brackets is the number upon which the percentage is based. For example, in Halifax, 30.1 percent of the 279 males in the sample were detained at arrest; 15.1 percent of the 53 females were detained by the police.
  • [34] In this analysis, Vancouver and Surrey were not combined as were the downtown Toronto and Scarborough courts because of the very large differences in police detention rates in the two British Columbia cities.
  • [35] Six out of eight Aboriginal cases.
  • [36] There was no discernible difference in detention rates between one and two parent homes.
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