Police Discretion with Young Offenders

VI. Conclusions

Implications for future research

6.0  Implications for future research

6.0  Implications for future research

In this section, we suggest several research initiatives which we believe would be valuable contributions to the evaluation of the impact of the YCJA.

6.1  A pre-post evaluation of the impact of the YCJA

One of the main objectives of the present study was to provide baseline data on the exercise of police discretion with youth, so that the impact of the YCJA on police discretion could be evaluated by collecting comparable data in a few years time, and analyzing any changes that had taken place. Such a study should collect qualitative and quantitative data on all aspects of police discretion with youth, and on organizational characteristics of police services and their environments, as the present research has done. The proposed research should also repeat our analysis of situational factors influencing police discretion, in order to see if any changes have occurred.

Such a study could replicate the methodology of the present study, or it might be possible to collect the data which we obtained through face-to-face interviews by telephone interviews or perhaps even mailed questionnaires. These more streamlined methods might be feasible because the present study has defined the issues, and has developed a set of standardized answers to all of the questions which we asked. (All of our questions, except those concerning the impact of various situational factors, were open-ended, i.e. we simply asked the questions and recorded the answers, which were classified and coded later; in many cases, it was not so much a matter of question and answer as of introducing a topic and recording and later coding the ensuing discussion.) However, it is our strong impression that a principal reason for the incredible cooperation which we received was that we made a visit to each police service and conducted face-to-face interviews. Telephone interviews or mailed questionnaires might result in a much lower degree of participation, and much less complete data from each participating police service. The follow-up study would also analyze data from the UCR and UCR2 Surveys, and would benefit, hopefully, from improvements in the UCR2 Study (see below). Such a follow-up study could be conducted in late 2004 or, preferably, in 2005 after the YCJA has been in effect for two full years; one factor which might affect the timing would be the availability of UCR2 data for an expanded sample of police agencies (see below).

6.2  A baseline file study of police discretion under the YOA

One of the major lacunae of the present research is the lack of quantitative data on various aspects of police discretion, such as informal warnings, formal warnings, arrest, etc. Although we have been able to report the percentage of police services which use such forms of discretion "usually", "always", etc., we have been unable to report precisely what proportion of their youth-related cases are handled by each of these methods.

As is explained above, it was not possible, for various reasons, for us to obtain this kind of information on individual (or aggregated) young offender cases from police hardcopy files or Records Management Systems. Such baseline information for the sample of police services which we studied, or a comparable sample, would be enormously useful in a later evaluation of the impact of the YCJA, assuming that comparative data could again be collected in the follow-up evaluation study. We therefore suggest that the possibility of a file study be revisited.

6.3  A "best practices" study of police discretion under the YCJA

Because the present study was designed as a exploratory survey, that is, a study of a relatively large representative sample of police services, with a somewhat open-ended set of questions, we were not able to study any one police service in much depth. However, it was quite evident that some police services have already implemented, or are in the process of implementing, many of the structures and processes which we believe will result in greater use of police discretion with youth. It would be valuable to do in-depth study of a small number - perhaps six - of these police services, in order to evaluate more carefully the impact of these various organizational factors. Such information could be useful both to policymakers and to management of other police services.

6.4  A study of the processing of administrative offences under the YCJA

We have referred repeatedly in this report to the epidemic of offences against the administration of justice committed by young persons, and the apparent inability of the current system to deal with them constructively. We have also alluded to the view taken by most police officers that they have very little discretion when a request, whether explicit or implicit, to lay an administrative charge comes to them from another system agent. We also reported that we were unable to clarify the process by which a youth's failure to appear in court leads to the laying of a charge by police, who apparently feel that in this situation they have no discretion because of the wishes of the judge.

Because of the enormity of the problem of administrative offences, it might be worthwhile to devote a separate study to a close investigation of the respective roles of police, judges, and other system agents such as probation officers, in the genesis of administrative charges. Such a study would also monitor the implementation of the provisions in the YCJA for nonjudicial responses to administrative charges, and the impact of these provisions.

6.5  Improvement of the UCR2 Survey

In principle, the UCR2 Survey should be an enormously useful tool for monitoring the implementation of the YCJA and evaluating its impact. The UCR2 has two data elements which capture the use of police discretion. One is the clearance status of each incident, coded as cleared by charge, or cleared in several other ways, some of which are forms of police discretion, and one of which captures referral to diversion programs. The other element is the clearance status of each apprehended person, which is currently coded as charged or processed otherwise. It is our understanding that these codes may be expanded somewhat to capture the new provisions of the YCJA.

However, the UCR2 is currently of extremely limited use in monitoring the use of police discretion in Canada, and its correlates. As a research tool for studying police discretion in Canada, it suffers from two crippling deficiencies. The main one is the non-participation of a large number of police services. Although the UCR2 for 2001 included 59% of incidents in Canada, its coverage is concentrated in Quebec, and, to a lesser extent, Ontario. It included only 1 police agency in British Columbia, 4 in each of Saskatchewan and Alberta, etc. Since the RCMP does not participate, there is practically no information on policing in small towns and rural areas outside Ontario and Quebec. Even in Ontario, only 13 municipal agencies and the OPP report to the UCR2, leaving numerous towns unrepresented. Until at least the RCMP, and preferably many more municipal agencies report to the UCR2, it will be all but useless for portraying the national situation.

The second deficiency is specific to the two elements described above: the clearance status of incidents and of apprehended persons. Some police services which report to the UCR2, including some very large police services, provide information on few or no incidents or persons which are cleared other than by charge. Thus, according to their UCR2 returns, they lay a charge in approximately 100% of incidents, and against approximately 100% of apprehended persons. This makes the information in the UCR2 for these police services useless in the study of police discretion. It is also possible that other police services substantially under-report incidents and persons cleared otherwise, thus inflating their charge rates. Until the non-reporting problem is cleared up, the effective coverage of the UCR2, for purposes of the study of police discretion, is even less than its limited overall coverage. Furthermore, until the problem of under-reporting is resolved, statistics derived from the UCR2 on the extent of use of informal action and of pre-charge diversion will always be viewed with scepticism. This is a great pity, because in principle it is infinitely preferable to have quantitative data on police activity collected every year on a routine basis by a professional data collection agency, which can guarantee confidentiality under the Statistics Act, to having to collect it oneself on a one-shot basis, at great expense, and entirely dependent on the willingness of police to cooperate.

Any investment made now in immediate improvement of both the coverage and the data integrity of the UCR2 should provide large dividends to research on all aspects of police work under the YCJA, in the coming years.