Police Discretion with Young Offenders

VI. Conclusions

2.0  Environmental factors influencing police discretion with youth

Two major sources of influence on the way in which officers exercise their discretion are the environment in which the police agency is situated, and the way in which the agency is organized. Police agencies operate within a complex environment, consisting of, among other things, the nature of the local community, federal and provincial legislation, policies, procedures, and programs, local public and private resources, and public opinion. The police have little or no control over their environment. Nor can any federal or provincial government agency expect to have much immediate impact on some salient aspects of the policing environment, such as the degree of urbanization, socio-demographic characteristics, or the level and type of crime of the communities which police serve. However, it is certainly within the power of provincial governments to affect other aspects of the policing environment which affect the exercise of police discretion, namely the relationship of Crown prosecutors with the police, and, above all, the availability of programs to which youth can be referred as an alternative to being charged (and, on occasion, held in police detention).

The availability of external resources to which apprehended youth can be diverted is seen by many police officers as crucial to their ability to avoid laying a charge. This availability varies widely. They are much more common in metropolitan jurisdictions than in suburban/exurban communities or, especially, rural communities and small towns. However, they are seen by officers as inadequate in all types of communities and all parts of Canada. In all provinces and territories, officers felt that they did not have the appropriate external resources for the effective handling of youths with alcohol or drug addiction, anger management issues, or mental illness (including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effect). Officers in many police agencies said that there were absolutely no programs available for young people with these problems. Lack of suitable diversion programs is associated with increased use of charging, and with increased use of detention. When there is no available agency to which police can release a youth in need of immediate supervision or intervention, then they sometimes feel constrained to hold the youth for a bail hearing.

We looked at several characteristics of the community in which the police work. Some research, especially in the U.S.A., has found that urbanization is associated with higher crime rates and higher levels of formal action by police; whereas, there is less crime and a more neighbourly atmosphere in rural areas and small towns, and a corresponding less formal policing style. In Canada, there is no relationship between urbanization and the crime rate. Crime rates in small places are as high as those in the largest cities. However, youths commit more serious violent crime and property crime, and more gang-related crime, in metropolitan areas. Another major difference between the Canadian and American situations is that most rural areas and small towns in Canada are policed by detachments of three very large, professional, and bureaucratic police services - the RCMP, OPP, and Sûreté du Québec; whereas, in the U.S.A., small towns and rural areas are often policed by elected sheriffs or small-town police forces recruited locally. The findings from the interview data suggest a different style of policing in rural and small town areas, and also some differences between policing in urban centres and their suburban and exurban fringes. Rural and small town communities have a distinctive social climate that appears also to influence police decision-making. With a higher density of acquaintanceship, rural and small town officers feel more accountable to the community. On the other hand, detachment commanders in the RCMP and OPP are accountable to their superiors, and, ultimately, to headquarters in Ottawa or Orillia. Rural and small town officers whom we interviewed - whether in independent municipal agencies, or RCMP or OPP detachments - suggested that the communities they police want the police to be tough on youth crime but not to incarcerate their youth. Officers in rural areas and small towns appear to make more use of informal action, but less use of pre-charge diversion, than officers in metropolitan and suburban jurisdictions. Rural/small town and suburban/exurban jurisdictions are particularly likely to have no external agencies to which police can divert youth: almost half of the officers whom we interviewed in non-metropolitan communities said that they are never able to make referrals to external agencies. Officers in rural/small town communities and in suburban/exurban communities are more likely to use a summons to compel appearance, because they do not face the same problems of serving it as do officers in larger centres; and officers in rural areas and small towns are less likely to detain a youth for a JIR hearing, because the distance to the nearest youth detention facility makes access problematic, both for the police and for the youth's family.

Concerning the level of youth crime in the community, 29% of police services said they had "a lot", 17% said "not very much", and the others indicated "a normal amount". Perceived high levels of youth crime are more common in the Prairies and the Territories, and in metropolitan areas. UCR data indicate that police agencies in communities which police said had "not very much" youth crime have higher rates of charging apprehended youth than others. These are confirmed by data from the interviews, which suggest that police officers tend to use more discretion if they identified their jurisdiction as having a lot of youth crime. They are more likely to use various forms of informal action and pre-charge diversion, and they are more likely to detain for a JIR hearing and to cite "legalistic" rather than social welfare reasons for detention.

When we asked about the types of youth crime which are characteristic of their jurisdictions, officers in most police services reported, not unexpectedly, that they deal with high levels of minor property crime and minor assaults. Three-quarters of the police agencies also perceive high levels of serious property crime by youth, especially break and enter. One-quarter identified a problem of serious violent youth crime. These were more prevalent in metropolitan areas and in the Prairie provinces. One-quarter identified a problem of youth gangs; these were also more common in metropolitan areas and the Prairies. Surprisingly, 80% of the police services in the sample perceive a serious problem of drug-related crime among youth in their jurisdictions. These are spread across all the provinces and territories, and in all types of communities, although they are slightly more prevalent in the Territories, and in metropolitan jurisdictions. 14% of the police services, all but one in metropolitan jurisdictions, identified a problem of teenage prostitution. We found no significant relationship between the types of youth crime identified in a jurisdiction, and the exercise of discretion with young persons in that jurisdiction.

The literature on the history of police-aboriginal relations in Canada suggests that they have been characterized by conflict and mutual distrust. 42% of the agencies in the sample said that they have jurisdiction over significant populations of aboriginal peoples, living either on- or off-reserve. They are more prevalent in the Territories, British Columbia, and the Prairies. The UCR data indicate that police services which police off-reserve aboriginals have rates of charging apprehended youth which are a little higher than other police agencies. The interview data indicate that police agencies with jurisdiction over aboriginal populations are slightly more likely than other police services to use informal action, twice as likely to refer youth to a Restorative Justice program, less likely to use summonses or appearance notices, more likely to use a Promise to Appear and an OIC Undertaking, and more likely to detain for a JIR hearing because the youth is a repeat offender, is intoxicated, or for the youth's safety.

The characterizations by respondents of police-community relations in their jurisdictions are consistent with the results of previous research. About two-thirds of respondents found the community to be generally or very supportive of the police; one-quarter offered fairly neutral or mixed assessments, and 14% found the community to be only "somewhat" or "not" supportive. Police in suburban/exurban jurisdictions were most likely to find the community generally or very supportive; those in rural/small town agencies were slightly more likely to find the community generally or very supportive than those in metropolitan agencies. Police in British Columbia and the Prairies, and those which have jurisdiction over a significant aboriginal population, are less likely than other officers to find the community generally or very supportive. We found no relationship between the exercise of police discretion with youth and the perceived level of community support.