An Examination of the Toronto Police Service Youth Referral Program

Executive Summary


The Youth Referral Program was developed during 1999-2000 as a “brokerage model” for handling minor cases that otherwise would have gone to youth court.  Police officers, initially in two divisions, but later in four more, were given an alternative choice for cases where a youth had been arrested and would otherwise have gone to court.  Police officers would, through a police liaison office, refer the youth to a non-profit community corrections organization, Operation Springboard.  It was then Springboard’s responsibility to interview the youth with the goal of developing a sanction that would hold the youth accountable in a proportionate manner.  In addition, Springboard would attempt to assess whether the youth had any obvious needs that might be addressed through a referral to a community organization. Though the program was implemented prior to the date that the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into force, it was designed to be compatible with it.  In particular, it was designed to provide a mechanism for officers to “refer the young person to a program or agency” (Section 6(1)) in the community.

This report examines the operation of the Toronto Police Service Youth Referral Program (TPS-YRP) as it operated from April 2002 until December 2003.  We looked at the program from a number of different perspectives. Using nine different sets of data, we attempted to determine whether the program was meeting its objectives.  One of the most important objectives was to find a way of taking youths who would otherwise have gone to court and holding them accountable for their offences outside of the court system.  They were, in addition, meant to be held accountable in a manner that was proportionate to their offences.  “Efficiency” was also clearly relevant as an objective because of the principle, stated in the YCJA, which indicates that the quick resolution of youth justice matters is to be valued.  Finally, consistent with the legislation, the youth’s participation in the program was meant to be voluntary and approaches that decrease future offending (or, at a minimum, do not increase future offending) were to be employed.

Reducing the Use of Court

It appeared, from a variety of different data sets, that the TPS-YRP did not substantially reduce the use of youth court.  Simple descriptive information comparing the Youth Referral Program (YRP) cases to youth court cases revealed that the YRP was targeting different youths.  Youths referred to the YRP tended to be relatively young (relative to court bound youth in Toronto and nationally) and involved a slightly disproportionate number of girls (compared, again, to court bound cases).  The YRP cases also tended to be minor in nature – overwhelmingly consisting of theft under $5,000 (almost all shoplifting), many of which involved apparently first time offenders who stole goods worth relatively small amounts.

The YRP was first introduced in two Scarborough divisions (Divisions 41 and 42) in April 2002. Time series analyses revealed that in 42 Division, once controlling for other trends like the introduction of the YCJA, the introduction of the YRP was statistically significantly related to a small reduction in the number of youths sent to court, but only for theft under $5,000.  There were no other significant reductions when looking at cases other than theft under, or when looking at cases from 41 Division. In fact, 41 Division – the Division in which the program did not seem to have an effect on the number of referrals to court – referred more cases to the YRP and, in particular, referred a larger number (and proportion) of cases involving theft unders. We would suggest that these theft under cases that were being referred to the program in 41 Division were almost exclusively cases that otherwise would not have gone to court.  Overall, there appeared to be a reduction of roughly 9-12 youths per month going to court in the two Scarborough divisions combined.

In February 2003 four other divisions began to run the program (the “north” divisions which included divisions 13, 31, 32 and 33). There did not appear to be an overall drop in the number of cases referred to court, once the other trends (most importantly, the overall trends in the “non-YRP” divisions) were taken into account.  The data from the north divisions are, however, somewhat more complex than for Scarborough.  In the first place, court referrals increased slightly (by a net amount of about six or seven a month), but statistically significantly, in 13 Division after the implementation of the program. Court referrals, overall, decreased significantly (by a net amount of about 7 per month) in 33 Division. This overall reduction consisted of a statistically significant reduction only in the number of cases of theft under $5000 going to court, and a non-significant reduction for all other offences.

Most of the cases of theft under, mischief, and minor assault that did go to court from the two Scarborough divisions (41 and 42) were dealt with by way of extrajudicial sanctions (or alternative measures).  Hence these data would suggest that in this location, the YRP was really acting as an alternative to a post-charge extrajudicial sanctions program.  Good arguments can be made that a “pre-charge” extrajudicial sanctions program (were it formally constituted as such) has many advantages over a post-charge program. We do not, however, see convincing evidence that very many of the YRP youths would have had full court hearings (or even have gotten to the stage of entering a guilty plea) had the program not existed.

Views from the officers who used the YRP were consistent with these findings.  Most of the officers (77%) told us that, in general, most of the cases that they referred to the YRP would have otherwise received a caution. Only 13% of the officers suggested that their referrals would have otherwise ended up in court.

Holding Youths Accountable through Timely and Proportionate Measures

Most of the youths who were referred to the program (93.6%) successfully completed the program that was required of them. There were a number of quite different reasons for failures to complete the program.  We were told that very few of those who did not complete the program were charged for the offence that brought them into the program, though exact numbers were not available.  Almost 90% of youths met with Springboard (the organization that had responsibility for imposing and administering the sanctions) within 4 weeks of their offence. Since it was at this first meeting that the youth received notice of what the consequences were of their offence, it could be said that about 90% of them were “sentenced” within four weeks of their offence. The length of time to complete the program, of course, took a much longer time. Eight weeks after the offence date, only 45% of the youths had completed their program. Clearly, however, in terms of learning the consequences of one’s action, a pre-charge referral program such as the TPS-YRP lets youths know quickly what the consequences are of their actions. In addition, compared to a sample of cases that received formal post-charge extrajudicial sanctions, YRP cases were disposed of considerably faster. Approximately 70% of YRP cases were completed and discharged within 10 weeks of the offence. In contrast, only about 13% of the court cases involving extrajudicial sanctions were completed within this time frame. Overall, only 23% of the court bound cases were out of the court system within 10 weeks and some of these cases, presumably, would take even longer until the sanction (e.g., probation) was completed.

Achieving proportionality in “sentencing” (or in this case the imposing of sanctions instead of a charge) is very difficult in any setting. In order to examine the success that Springboard had in accomplishing proportionality, we looked most closely at the theft under $5000 cases for two reasons: they were the most common in the program (74% of cases) and the severity of the offence could be roughly calculated by the value of the goods. We found evidence that, in general, sanctions were being handed down in a proportional manner. For example, the probability of the sanction involving only the writing of an apology to the victim (typically Wal-Mart, Zellers, the Bay, or Shoppers Drug Mart) or doing an essay or poster decreased dramatically as the value of the goods went up. Similarly, the probability of the youth being required to do community service went up as the value of the goods increased.

At the same time, however, there was evidence of considerable unexplained variation in sanctions. Looking only at the 78 thefts involving goods valued between $7 and $10, for example, we found that the sanctions ranged from an apology alone (in four cases) to 20 hours (the modal number imposed across all cases) of community service (in 5 cases). We looked more carefully at some of these cases and were not able to find a rationale that explained the variation. Part of the reason that the variation exists (within an overall statistically significant relationship between the value of the goods taken and the severity of the sanction) is that Springboard did not appear to have any explicit presumptive norms about the sanction that should be imposed. Like judges, each case was evaluated as if it were unique.

Police officers were split in their views of whether the YRP held youths accountable for their actions, with 48% indicating that they thought that the YRP was successful in this regard, and 44% indicating that the YRP was not successful. However, this should be interpreted in context – most (78%) police officers were likely to report that the YRP was better at holding the youth accountable than was the youth court.

The Experiences of YRP and Court Youths

In understanding how youths responded to the YRP and to Extrajudicial Sanctions in court, it is important to consider what it was that youths thought would happen to them when they were apprehended for their offences. YRP youths clearly believed that the system was more likely to process them formally than, in fact, it was. In the case of the YRP youths, in particular, since they probably would not have been sent to court had the program not existed, a substantial portion over-estimated the likelihood of formal processing.  In the case of the “court” sample of youths, many appear to have assumed that their fate would be decided by a court rather than by way of extrajudicial sanctions.

The YRP was designed to be a program that the youths participated in only if they chose to do so.  It was, from the youth’s perspective, a Hobson’s choice.  83% of the YRP youths who were interviewed thought that if they refused to participate, the police would have taken them to court.  An additional 9% thought that they would be taken directly to jail (without, apparently, passing court on the way to jail). The remaining were unsure.

Youths who were sent to court and received alternative measures/extrajudicial sanctions were also given a choice as to whether or not they would like to participate in extrajudicial sanctions once they had appeared before the courts. 59% of the youths stated that they believed they would have received more severe sanctions if they had turned down extrajudicial sanctions. 8% believed that they would have gone to trial and received a criminal record and another 26% of youths were unsure what would have happened to them.

In this context, then, it is easy to see why it is that the youths who were given the option of choosing the YRP, as well as youths who were charged who were given the option of extrajudicial sanctions, chose as they did. Only a small proportion (7%) of youths whom we interviewed who chose the YRP said that they didn’t think that they had a choice. Avoiding court, jail, or the possibility of a criminal record was reason enough for most youths to opt for the YRP.

Given that most YRP youths saw “court” (or something more severe) as the “natural” outcome had they not chosen the YRP, it is not surprising that the majority (54%) thought that the YRP was the appropriate destination for them. Only a small portion (22%) thought that a warning would have been appropriate. Court youths who got extrajudicial sanctions, on the other hand, were also content with what happened to them.  Two thirds reported feeling that the appropriate disposition had been made for them. Only 20% thought that a warning alone would have been more appropriate.

Almost all youths who were referred to the YRP (91%) and most (75%) of the youths in the court (extrajudicial sanction) group who were interviewed indicated that they felt that the police had explained what would happen to them, though about half of each group (56% of the YRP group and 47% of the court group) indicated that the police had not explained to them that they had the right not to admit to the offence.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that most youths in the YRP – as well as most youths in post-charge extrajudicial sanctions programs – were content with how things had turned out.  It is likely that part of the reason for this is that they had expected something much worse – a full court hearing and/or some form of custody or control.


A well known vaudeville comedian, when asked “How is your wife?” gave an answer which is relevant to all studies of recidivism: “As compared to what?”  We created a sample of youths whose offending background was similar to the YRP youths but who had been sent to court, cautioned, or arrested and unconditionally released (for a theft under offence) from the same police division. This group was then compared to the YRP youths. On various measures – criminal and non-criminal contacts not resulting in charges, criminal charges, and all contacts and charges combined – the results were the same: the YRP youths did not differ from the comparison group.  This is neither a surprising nor a discouraging finding. It is not surprising because minor interventions in the lives of young people such as what occurred to the YRP youths have not been shown, generally, to reduce offending.  It should not be seen as discouraging for another simple reason: the main purpose in setting up the program was not to reduce offending.  It was to reduce the use of youth court for minor offences.