A One-Day Snapshot of Aboriginal Youth in Custody Across Canada : Phase II

5. DISCUSSION

5. DISCUSSION

The results from the Snapshot data analysis confirmed that Aboriginal youth experience an appreciably higher incarceration rate compared to non-Aboriginal youth in Canada . The question that remains is 'why?'. There are several data sources that can be examined to answer this question.

5.1 Snapshot Data

The Snapshot data revealed that Aboriginal youth, generally, are convicted of their first offence at an early age (between 12 and 14 years of age). Early involvement in the youth criminal justice system may play a role in the high incarceration rate of Aboriginal youth. Early involvement increases the likelihood of a criminal record, which can lead to more serious sentences.

The Snapshot data also indicated that 47% of Aboriginal youth in custody lived in families that received social assistance. La Prairie (1992, 2002) argued that the central factor related to higher incarceration rates among Aboriginal people is poverty. These data provide additional support for La Prairie's assertion.

There were a considerable number of Aboriginal youth in custody, according to the Snapshot data, with substance abuse problems. Approximately 57% of Aboriginal youth had a confirmed problem and an additional 24% had a suspected problem with alcohol and/or drugs. Substance abuse has been well documented as a correlate of criminal behaviour among youth ( Dawkins, 1997; Huizinga & Jakob-Chien, 1998; Latimer, Kleinknecht, Hung & Gabor, 2003 ). Previous research has also demonstrated a clear link between alcohol or drug abuse and violent crime (Fergusson, Lynskey & Horwood, 1996; Watts & Wright, 1990), which is associated with more serious sentences.

The Snapshot data indicated that a large proportion (39%) of Aboriginal youth were involved with child protection agencies. Recent research into the correlates of delinquency found that negative parenting (e.g., inconsistent parenting, low levels of supervision, harsh discipline) was significantly correlated with criminal behaviour among youth (Latimer, Kleinknecht, Hung & Gabor, 2003). Involvement with child protection agencies is a good indication that a youth has experienced negative parenting.

Poor school attachment (e.g., performance, attendance, behaviour) has also been significantly correlated with delinquency among youth (Latimer, Kleinknecht, Hung & Gabor, 2003). A high proportion of Aboriginal youth in custody were reported to have limited education indicating school attachment issues.

Unfortunately, none of these variables (age at first conviction, social assistance, substance abuse, child protection agency involvement, highest grade completed) were collected on non-Aboriginal youth thus limiting conclusions.

The Snapshot data did reveal that, on average, Aboriginal youth receive longer custodial sentences compared to non-Aboriginal youth for many offence groupings. This finding should be viewed with some caution, however, as the criminal history of the youth and the seriousness of the offence within the offence grouping were not controlled for in the analysis. These factors are important in the sentencing process and may have explained a large proportion of the variance in the sentence lengths of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth in custody. Nonetheless, this may partially explain why Aboriginal youth experience a higher incarceration rate as longer sentences have been previously identified as a leading contributor to higher incarceration rates (Young & Brown, 1993).

5.2 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth

Self-report data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth indicated that the same proportion of Aboriginal youth and non-Aboriginal youth are involved in criminal behaviour. The data also indicated, however, that Aboriginal youth commit more serious offences compared to non-Aboriginal youth (Latimer, Kleinknecht, Hung & Gabor, 2003). This may also partially explain why Aboriginal youth experience a higher incarceration rate compared to non-Aboriginal youth. Youth who commit more serious offences are more likely to receive a custodial sentence compared to youth who commit less serious offences. Furthermore, since these data are self-reported, they are not subject to the same potential bias as official data sources.

5.3 YCJA Monitoring Study: Baseline Phase

Data collected by the Department of Justice Canada from youth courts in 1999/2000 indicated that Aboriginal youth are more likely to receive custody as the most serious disposition across almost all offence categories compared to non-Aboriginal youth, including drug possession, drug trafficking, serious assaults, common assaults, break and enter, theft over $5,000, and mischief (Latimer & Verbrugge, forthcoming). These data also indicated that the median sentence length for Aboriginal youth (90 days) is three times the median sentence length for non-Aboriginal youth (30 days). Again, however, these analyses did not control for the criminal history of the youth or the seriousness of the offence.

5.4 Sharing Circle Data

Data from the Sharing Circle suggested additional reasons that may explain some of the variance in incarceration rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth. The Aboriginal participants in the Sharing circles disclosed high rates of victimization in their families, substance abuse and organized gang participation. These factors are widely recognized as significant correlates of delinquency (Latimer, Kleinknecht, Hung & Gabor, 2003; Andrews & Bonta, 1998). In other words, a history of child maltreatment, drug and alcohol abuse, and involvement with anti-social peers places youth at a significant risk for engaging in criminal behaviour. The Sharing Circle data do not, however, substantiate that non-Aboriginal youth in custody experience lower rates of victimization, substance abuse and/or organized gang participation.

In addition to these factors, participants in the Sharing Circles reported serious incidents of individual racism. Police officers and probation officers have the discretion to formally charge a youth or deal with him or her informally. Judges have the discretion to impose custodial or non-custodial sentences within the restrictions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act . It is possible that Aboriginal youth may experience a higher formal charge rate and a higher likelihood of receiving custody even when criminal history and the seriousness of the offence are considered. The Snapshot data, as well as the data from the Baseline Phase of the YCJA Monitoring Study, provided preliminary support to this hypothesis. A more detailed analysis of the data from the YCJA Monitoring Study, which will control for criminal history and offence severity is in the developmental stages. It is anticipated that this analysis will provide more evidence to answer the question of whether or not a systemic bias against Aboriginal youth exists in the youth criminal justice system.

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