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

5. The Effects of Detention at Arrest on Court Processing

5. The Effects of Detention at Arrest on Court Processing

Research suggests that there are a number of disadvantages associated with pre-trial detention including an increased likelihood of being found guilty and receiving a more severe sentence (Brignell, 2002; Kellough and Wortley, 2002). This Section examines the extent to which being detained by the youth court affects the plea - and hence the adjudication of the young person - and the sentence imposed. [51] The dependent variables in this Section are the plea, adjudication and sentence for the charge that represents the case. [52]

Earlier, detention was the dependent variable. Here, it becomes one of several independent variables in the logistic regression equations. The detention variable was initially categorized into three categories: not detained at arrest, detained at arrest but released by the youth court, not released by the youth court until the case was over. In all courts combined, about 56 percent of the sample were not detained at arrest, 28 percent were detained and subsequently released and 16 percent (300 of the 1,843 cases in the sample) were held by the court.

The interest in this section is to determine if pre-trial detention affects the dependent variables, the nature of the plea and community versus custodial sentences. Unlike the analysis in Sections 3 and 4, we are not especially interested in the prediction or explanatory power of the logistic regression models. For the sake of brevity, there is no discussion of the bivariate relationships to the dependent variables and the analysis is not-by-court - that is, it is confined to the total sample.

5.1 Does Pre-trial Detention Affect the Final Plea and Adjudication?

Final plea was divided into no plea or not guilty plea compared to guilty pleas (in other words, guilty pleas versus all other situations). Table 5.1 shows that pre-trial detention was associated with the nature of the plea and, of course, the adjudication. Although the pleas of the not detained and the detained-but-released groups were very similar, the not released youth were significantly more likely to plead guilty to the charge that represented their case - 64 percent versus 51 to 54 percent.

TABLE 5.1 - FINAL PLEA AND ADJUDICTION BY PRE-TRIAL DETENTION

Final plea (1)
  Not detained by police Detained but released by the youth court Not released by the youth court
Column percentages
No plea or not guilty plea 49.4 45.8 36.3
Guilty plea 50.6 52.4 63.7
Total percent 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total number 1012 496 294

Adjudication (2)
  Not detained by police Detained but released by the youth court Not released by the youth court
Column percentages
No finding of guilt 47.2 43.2 34.5
Finding of guilt or transfer to adult court 52.8 56.8 65.5
Total percent 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total number 993 502 290

Notes:

  • (1) Chi-square = 15.92 df=2 p<.001 (2) Chi-square = 14.99 df=2 p<.001
  • The final plea and adjudication were made on the charge selected to represent the case, which was calculated by determining the most serious sentence and if no charge went to the dispositional stage, by selecting the most serious offence type.

As a result of this finding, the detention variable was categorized as "not detained" and "detained but released" versus "not released by the youth court".

Analyses not reported here found that all reliable demographic and social factors, the presence and number of prior convictions, other characteristics of the prior record, the seriousness or nature of current charge, and most bail-related variables were unrelated to making a final plea of guilty when other factors were controlled. They are therefore omitted from the model.

Court location was included as an independent variable because of the differences by court in the nature of the final plea. The number of current charges, the bail and custody history of the accused, and whether there was a bail violation among the current charges were added in subsequent steps. The two last variables included in the model were whether the accused had been detained by the court at his or her detention at arrest, and the number of detention stays during the court process. See Appendix, Table A.22, for the details of the regression model.

Pre-trial detention by the youth court increased the likelihood of a guilty plea even when these other factors were controlled. The relationship is statistically significant (p<.01). However, detention by the youth court did not contribute to the accuracy or explanatory value of the model or its ability to explain the variance in the nature of the plea.

Other findings worth remarking on are:

  • The court location contributes the most to the variance in the nature of the plea.
  • The larger the number of current charges, the more likely it is that the accused pleads guilty.
  • Having a current charge of fail to attend court or a fail to comply with bail conditions increases the likelihood of a guilty plea.
  • Accused who had current charges involving hybrid property offences or breaches of probation were more likely to plead guilty.
  • The more detention stays of the accused, the more likely he or she would plead guilty.

The regression equation, while statistically significant, did not explain the variance in the dependent variable and had little or no predictive accuracy. This should not be surprising, since the nature and quality of the evidence against the accused and the ability of defence counsel to bargain with the Crown were not captured in this analysis.

Exactly the same results were found when the same factors were applied to the nature of the adjudication on the most serious charge, defined as no adjudication versus found guilty or transferred to adult court. That is, a disproportionate number of youth who are not released by the court are found guilty.

We speculate that detained young persons may plead guilty in order to get out of detention or because - as will be seen next - they are strong candidates for a custodial sentence.

5.2 Does Pre-trial Detention Affect Sentencing?

Research on adult court processing has found that persons who are not released at their bail hearing receive harsher sentences. A study in the Toronto youth court drew similar conclusions (cited in Varma, 2002).

In this dataset, young persons held by the court were three times as likely to be sentenced to custody as were those who were not detained by police or had been released at their bail hearing (Table 5.4). Sixty percent of detained youth received an open or secure custody sentence whereas only about 18 to 20 percent of other young persons received custody.

TABLE 5.4 - CUSTODIAL SENTENCES BY PRE-TRIAL DETENTION
  Not detained by police Detained but released by the youth court Not released by the youth court
Column percentages
No custodial sentence 81.9 79.6 40.5
Open or secure custody sentence 18.1 20.4 59.5
Total percent 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Total number 524 284 185

Notes:

  • Chi-square = 127.46 df=2 p<.001
  • The custodial sentence was imposed on the charge selected to represent the case, which was calculated by determining the most serious sentence and if no charge went to the dispositional stage, by selecting the most serious offence type.

This remarkably strong two-way relationship was explored further by means of logistic regression. At first we constructed regression models that included an array of independent variables that were associated with custodial sentences. Upon reducing the number of independent variables by eliminating those with low or insignificant coefficients we found that identical predictive accuracy and the amount of variance explained could be achieved with a much smaller number of factors. They were: the composite measure of prior record; the number of current charges; the nature/seriousness of the most serious current charge; whether the accused was released at his bail hearing (yes/no); and the number of detention stays during the court process.

Two indicators of detention experience were statistically significant. If the accused had been kept in detention until his or her case was over, it was more likely that open or secure custody would be imposed. The number of detention stays during court processing was even more closely related to custody: the larger the number, the greater the likelihood of being sentenced to custody.

Other findings that independently affected the decision to impose custody, even when all other factors are controlled, were as follows:

  • Prior record - its length, nature and seriousness of past sentences - was most influential in the decision to impose custody.
  • The number of current charges affected the custody decision.
  • If the current charge was an indictable offence against the person, the probability of custody was increased.

Therefore, this analysis confirms that the detention experience of young persons affects the likelihood of receiving the most severe sentence. Those that are not released by the court after being detained at their "first" arrest [53] are disproportionately sentenced to custody as are those who have multiple stays in pre-trial detention. This finding remains even when other factors such as prior record are controlled.

5.3 Summary

This Section has reproduced the findings of others. Staying in pre-trial detention disadvantages the accused person both in terms of increasing the likelihood of pleading guilty, and hence being found guilty, and in terms of receiving a custodial sentence.


  • [51] Plea is very closely associated with the adjudication - if the accused pleads guilty he or she is found guilty.
  • [52] This charge was selected by selecting the offence that received the most severe sentence and if there was no sentence by selecting the offence with the most serious offence type with indictable offences against the person being most serious and other offences against the administration of justice classified as least serious. These calculations were done for all charges that had the same date of sentence as the "instant" offences - that is, they include charges that merged with the "instant" offence at adjudication and/or sentence.
  • [53] First in terms of the first arrest in our sample.

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