Police Discretion with Young Offenders

VI. Conclusions

4.0  Situational factors influencing police discretion with youth

Most research on police decision-making with youth has been restricted to analysis of the impact of factors specific to the individual incident and apprehended youth on the decision whether to charge (or to arrest, in most American research). Our main source of information about these factors was the views expressed by officers in interviews, but these were complemented wherever possible by statistical analysis of data from the UCR2 Survey.

Both sources of data confirmed that the "legal" factors of the seriousness of the offence (including its Criminal Code classification, the presence and type of weapon, and harm done to the person or property of a victim) and the youth's criminal history are by far the most important determinants of the officer's decision whether to lay a charge or resolve the incident otherwise. Almost every respondent identified seriousness and prior record as major factors in their decision-making. However, these apparently simple relationships become more complex when examined more closely.

The relationship between the type of offence and the likelihood of charging is by no means a simple question of "seriousness". Less discretion is exercised with offences against the administration of justice than with any other offence except homicide and attempt murder - although administrative offences have no victim and cause no harm, except expense and inconvenience to the justice system. If discretion varies inversely with seriousness of the offence, then possession of stolen property is more serious than abduction, major assaults, drug trafficking, break and enter, and sexual assaults; impaired driving is more serious than break and enter, sexual assaults, and sexual abuse; arson is less serious than almost any other offence; and violent crimes, as a group, are slightly less serious than victimless crimes. Clearly, there is some relationship between the seriousness of the offence and the amount of discretion exercised by police, but the relationship is not straightforward.

The issue is more straightforward with respect to weapons and harm to a victim. Both the interview data and the UCR2 data confirm that a charge is much more likely if the youth was carrying a weapon, especially a firearm (which is very rare), or if a victim suffered significant harm to person or property.

The interview data and the UCR2 data also make clear that the youth's history of previous criminal activity - whether indicated by prior apprehensions by police, prior referrals to Alternative Measures, prior charges, or prior convictions - has a very strong influence on police discretion. Our analysis of UCR2 data found that the number of prior apprehensions of the youth - regardless of their outcome - is the strongest single predictor of the decision to charge.

After the seriousness of the offence and the youth's criminal history, the interview data indicate that the strongest influence on the decision to charge is the youth's demeanour - both his/her "attitude" and the extent of his/her cooperativeness when apprehended and processed. Approximately three-quarters of the respondents identified demeanour as a factor or major factor in their decision-making. Officers stressed the importance of the youth's accepting responsibility for his/her wrongdoing, and their willingness to "give him a break" when remorse and respect for the law were expressed. They also repeatedly referred to "accepting responsibility" as a criterion of eligibility for Alternative Measures.

According to the interview data, the next most important factors in the decision to charge are the victim's expressed dispositional preference, the extent and nature of parental involvement (whether parents appeared to be willing and able to take custody and control of the youth, and whether they expressed an appropriate attitude to their child's wrongdoing), and the stability of the youth's home and school situations. Approximately one-half of the respondents identified these as factors or major factors in their decision-making.

40% of respondents mentioned whether the crime was gang-related, and 22% cited the youth's gang affiliation, as factors or major factors in their decision-making. These officers were much more likely to be in metropolitan police services and/or communities with an identified problem of youth gangs.

Both the interview data and the UCR2 data identified the youth's age as a factor, although the results of analysis of the UCR2 data were stronger than the views expressed by interviewees. Only 28% of interviewees said that the youth's age was a factor or major factor in their decision-making. However, analysis of UCR2 data found that an apprehended 17 year old youth is 50% more likely to be charged, even when other factors such as the seriousness of the offence and his/her criminal history are controlled.

According to the interview data, some other factors play a minor or secondary role in the police decision to charge: whether the incident involved one or more offenders, the location and/or time of day, whether the youth was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, any relationship between the youth and a victim, and whether an adult co-offender as involved. The impact of two of these factors was also analyzed with UCR2 data, and both were found to have a minor effect. A lone offender is somewhat more likely to be charged than one apprehended with accomplices. Youths whose victims are a parent or stranger are more likely to be charged than those whose victims are siblings, friends or acquaintances, even when other related factors such as the type of offence are controlled.

The type of victim (person or business) and the youth's gender and race play little or no role in the decision whether to charge, according to officers interviewed. Analysis of UCR2 data confirmed that the youth's gender plays no role, but suggests that aboriginal youth are substantially more likely to be charged, even when other related factors are controlled.

We compared the views of officers from different parts of the country, different types of communities, and in different functional assignments. The most striking result was the consistency of views across all officers (and the consistency of the interview data with the results of statistical analysis of UCR2 data, and, indeed, with most previous research, in Canada and in other countries). However, there were differences in emphasis related to the region of the country, the type of community, the level and types of youth crime with which the police service was dealing, and whether the respondent was a member of a youth squad or was a School Liaison Officer.