Police Discretion with Young Offenders

II.  A Descriptive Profile

2.0  Offences that are almost always dealt with informally, referred to alternative measures, or charged

In view of the common belief that the type or seriousness of offence is the principal factor determining the way in which police officers exercise their discretion, we asked officers whether there were any types of offences which they "almost always" cleared in a particular way.

Few police officers whom we interviewed were willing to identify specific types of offences that they almost always charge, refer to alternative measures, or deal with informally. Rather, they emphasized that their decisions on clearing an incident were invariably "case-specific": that is, based on a constellation of factors in each case.

However, almost half (44%) of our respondents volunteered that they almost always charge "serious" offences. A small contingent of officers (7%) reported that they almost always charge minor offences; these tended to be working for independent municipal police services. A few officers did say that they would almost always charge for drug offences (5%) or gang-related offences (1%).

Table II.2 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by offence, Canada, 2000
Offence category Percent charged
Homicide and related 100.0
Attempted murder 100.0
Offences against the administration of justice 95.6
Kidnapping 95.3
Robbery 87.4
Possession stolen property 83.6
Abduction 80.0
Criminal code traffic 79.9
Major assault 79.2
Traffic/Import drugs 77.4
Other federal statutes (primarily YOA) 76.3
Impaired driving 76.1
Break and enter 71.1
Sexual assault 67.7
Fraud and related 64.5
Weapons and explosives 62.4
Sexual abuse 55.0
Other criminal code offences 54.3
Theft 52.7
Common assault 52.2
Possession of drugs 47.1
Morals - sexual 46.0
Arson 45.0
Morals - gaming/betting 40.0
Property damage / Mischief 38.1
Public order offences 28.5
Total Violent Crimes 62.7
Total Property Crimes 55.7
Total Other Crimes 63.6

Source: UCR Survey.

One-third of our interviewees indicated there were no offences that they would almost always refer to alternative measures, despite the clear stipulation in most departmental policy that there are certain types of offences that officers must consider for diversion. A further 22% of officers indicated they would almost always refer youth to alternative measures if they committed a minor offence. These offences tended to involve minor theft (e.g. shoplifting), mischief, or very minor crimes against the person. In the Atlantic Provinces, half of the officers interviewed responded in this fashion. Finally, very few officers told us they would almost always refer serious offences (1%) or provincial/territorial offences (1%) to alternative measures.

The use of informal action also does not appear to be determined simply by the type of offence. One-third of the responding officers indicated that there are no offences where they almost always would use informal action. A small percentage suggested they would almost always use informal action with provincial offences (14%) and minor offences (13%). Less than 1% identified serious offences or shoplifting as offences where they would "almost always" use informal action. However, 19% of the officers who worked in rural/small town services and detachments said that they almost always use informal action with minor offences, compared to 11% in metropolitan and suburban/exurban areas.

Comments made during the interviews suggest that the primary reason officers felt compelled to indicate there were no specific offences for any of these categories is their belief that each case must be judged on its own merits; thus, the decision is case-specific and cannot be reduced to a formula. One officer says "we've all tried to climb trees, and we all had ways to test our boundaries". A School Resource Officer in Alberta suggests,

Every time I have a young person in my office and I'm dealing with them in a criminal investigation I always look at their marks, I look at their attendance, their make-up, their behaviour towards life, I look at their relationship with their friends, their demeanour, the way they're sitting, the way they talk. But the most critical aspect is, I extrapolate four years of their life from the time of the incident, I go back four years and I ask them to tell me what it's been like for the last four years. 95% of the time, probably 100% of the time, the common denominator is lack of parenting, effective parenting, alcohol or drug abuse, bad decisions based on friends showing them, lack of dignity and respect, that is the common denominator. When I know that those are the issues, as a policeman, and even as a parent of two young kids, how do you charge somebody like that?