Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

5.0 Under the influence of alcohol or drugs

Evidence that the apprehended youth was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident has been found to increase substantially the likelihood of charges being laid (Carrington, 1998a; Conly, 1978).

The majority of police officers in our sample (63%) said that they do not take the use of alcohol or drugs into consideration when dealing with youth-related incidents. Another 26% said that this is a minor factor. However, several officers did indicate that it can have an effect on the method used to compel appearance, increasing the likelihood that they would release the youth on an OIC undertaking specifying no consumption of alcohol.

Officers in communities with a youth prostitution problem are more likely to consider alcohol or drug consumption to be a major factor in their decision-making with apprehended youth (11% versus 2% of officers in other communities). However, officers in communities with other kinds of youth crime problems are less likely to consider alcohol or drug consumption to be a factor or major factor: 8% of those in communities with serious youth property crime, versus 15% of those in other communities; 4% of officers in communities with serious violent youth crime, versus 13% of other communities; no officers in communities with an identified youth gang problem, versus 14% in other communities; and 4% in communities with a problem of youth-related administration of justice offences, versus 15% in other communities. It appears that alcohol and drug involvement in youth crime is more of an issue in communities which do not suffer from high levels of serious types of youth crime (except prostitution).

Officers in communities with a significant off-reserve aboriginal population are more likely to consider alcohol or drug consumption to be a factor or major factor (20% versus 7% of officers in other communities). (However, officers in police agencies which include a First Nations reserve in their jurisdiction are no more or less likely than other officers to consider alcohol/drug consumption as a factor.)

Officers with six or more years of service view the use of alcohol and drugs differently from officers with five years or less: 17% of the former consider the use of alcohol a factor or a major factor, compared to none of the latter.

When we asked officers to elaborate on the impact which the use of alcohol or drugs has on their decision-making, two trends emerged. First, many officers felt that the root cause of the youth's criminal behaviour was an addiction to alcohol or drugs. They raised concerns that there were not enough social services or places to which they could refer these youths in crisis. One officer in British Columbia expressed this frustration as follows,

Our whole thing is, why are we bringing these kids into the criminal justice system because they have a drug addiction when nobody is willing to take it one step further. [Many officers use drug and alcohol addiction as] a tool you can hold over their head because you know you'll look okay at the end in our little report, youth arrested by police, placed in detention centre, wipe your hands until it comes down to sentencing, 6 or 7 months down the road and you write to the probation officer, well, I haven't seen the kid, perhaps treatment is not a bad idea.

Several officers echoed these sentiments. They feel that they could make more of a difference if they had the resources available to refer youths to programs that will help them heal from their addictions.

Secondly, many officers indicated that the use of alcohol or drugs makes dealing with youth difficult. Alcohol is "liquid courage" and officers told us they do not take a youth's demeanour as seriously when they are under the influence. However, they are also quick to add that "the kid's safety is the main concern as the crime can happen any day". Thus, they will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the young person's safety until they 'sober up' (even if this means they must detain the youth as no other facilities are available).