Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

1.0 Background

Analysis of the impact of situational factors on the exercise of police discretion with young offenders is a time-honoured tradition in criminology. The classic study of the "police encounter" with the juvenile suspect is that of Black & Reiss (1970), which was replicated by Lundman et al. (1978). Both studies found that the probability that the encounter will result in the arrest of the juvenile is strongly related to the legal seriousness of the crime, the preference of the complainant, the presence of "situational" (i.e. readily available) evidence, and the suspect's demeanour. Both studies underlined the pivotal role of the complainant, who is simultaneously:

Thus, if there is a complainant, and s/he does express a preference, it is given a great deal of weight by the patrol officer, who often "abdicates his discretionary power to the complainant" (Black & Reiss, 1970: 72).

These studies are noteworthy as much for a couple of factors which were not found to play a role in police discretion as for the factors which did. First, although black youth were more likely than white youth to be arrested, both studies concluded that this was not an effect of racial bias by police, but was explained by the preferences expressed by the (black) complainants for arrest of (black) suspects, versus preferences expressed by white complainants for leniency with white suspects (there were few mixed-race incidents). Second, the juvenile's prior record, which is a major factor in sentencing, was not considered by the researchers, and presumably did not present itself as a factor, because, according to the authors, the studies concerned "encounters" between patrol officers and suspects "in the field": patrol officers in that era generally did not have access to the juvenile's record, and, furthermore, were only deciding whether to arrest, not whether to charge (refer to juvenile court)(Black & Reiss, 1970: 68-69).[89] This is a crucial point with respect to the applicability to the Canadian context of foreign - especially American - research on police discretion with juveniles. Much of the American research, following Black & Reiss, concerns the decision made by a patrol officer in the field whether to arrest; whereas, Canadian researchers are generally more interested in the determinants of the decision to lay, or recommend, a charge. As Black and Reiss themselves point out, the decision whether to refer to court (i.e. lay a charge, in the Canadian context) is a "prosecutorial" (sic) decision which, in the police departments that they studied, was not made by patrol officers, but by youth bureau officers, working in their offices, and probably more oriented toward the expectations of the juvenile court than the immediate situation on the street (1970: 68-69).

Subsequent (and previous) American and British researchers [90] have found broadly similar results: the police decision concerning the disposition of a youth-related incident is affected by (in approximate order of importance):[91]

The limited Canadian literature on police discretion with juveniles is reviewed below, under the separate topic headings. Canadian research has identified some additional factors affecting police discretion: the relationship of the victim and the apprehended youth; the presence and type of accomplices; whether the apprehended youth was under the influence of alcohol or drugs; the location and time of day of the incident; and the "gang" affiliation, if any, of the apprehended youth. These additional factors are addressed in our research. The situational factors which we consider in this chapter are presented in two groups: first, circumstances of the incident, then, characteristics of the apprehended youth.