Police Discretion with Young Offenders

V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion

9.0 Age

The probability of formal treatment by police increases with the young offender’s age (Carrington, 1996, 1998a; Conly, 1978; Ericson, 1982; Hornick et al., 1996). [100] Youths who are 17 years old are twice as likely to be charged as 12 year olds; for each additional year of age from 12 to 17 years, the probability of being charged versus dealt with informally rises by 4.6% (Carrington, 1998a); however, that study was unable to control for factors such as prior record and demeanour, which may explain the increased charging of older youth.

Analysis of UCR2 data confirms the major role of the age of the youth in the decision to charge. An apprehended seventeen year old is more than twice as likely to be charged as a twelve year old (Table V.13, first column). Some of the effect of the youth’s age is mediated by other factors, especially his or her accumulated record of prior apprehensions (Table V.14), and increasingly serious offences committed (Table V.3, above); but even when other factors are held constant, the probability of a charge increases by approximately 4% for each additional year of age, so that a seventeen year old whose offence, prior record, etc. are the same as those of a twelve year old, still has a 50% higher probability of being charged (Table V.13, column 2). Some of this differential might be due to factors not included in the statistical analysis, such as demeanour, but it seems highly unlikely that these could account entirely for the clear relationship shown in the second column of Table V.13.

Table V.13 Proportion of apprehended youth charged, by the age of the youth, Canada (parts), 2001
Age (years) % charged Adjusted % charged N
12 28 39 2,010
13 36 45 3,549
14 45 51 5,212
15 52 55 6,331
16 58 59 6,680
17 65 62 7,030

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

Table V.14 Number of prior apprehensions, by the age of the apprehended youth, Canada (parts), 2001
Age of the apprehended youth
Number of prior apprehensions 12 13 14 15 16 17
0 (first offender) 76.7% 74.3% 67.0% 59.2% 53.5% 47.7%
1 13.3% 13.6% 15.5% 18.2% 18.5% 17.9%
2 4.4% 5.1% 6.7% 8.5% 8.8% 9.0%
3-4 3.5% 3.7% 5.4% 6.8% 7.8% 9.4%
5+ 2.1% 3.4% 5.4% 7.3% 11.4% 16.0%

Source: UCR2 Survey, Trend Database.

In asking officers about the impact of the offender’s age on their decision-making, we provided the following illustration: “Would you consider being more lenient with a 12 year old than a 17 year old?” Or: “Would you be more likely to use informal action or alternative measures with a 12 year old than with a 17 year old?” There was considerable variation in the answers (Figure V.11).

Figure V.11: The effect of the offender’s age on police decision-making

Figure V.11 - The effect of the offender's age on police decision-making


Slightly more than one-quarter of the respondents said that they consider the young person’s age to be a factor or major factor in their decision-making. However, a large number consider it to be a minor, or secondary, factor.

Environmental factors appear to play a role in officers’ responses. In rural areas and small towns, officers are more likely to consider age a factor [101] (31%) than in suburban/exurban (22%) or metropolitan jurisdictions (21%). Also, officers in agencies which have a First Nations reserve in their jurisdiction are more likely to take the youth’s age into account (33% said it is a factor, versus 23% of other officers). These differences are consistent with other findings reported above which suggest a more particularistic (individualized) approach to police work with young offenders in smaller places and on reserves.

Alternatively, officers may take the youth’s age into account because they are less burdened with a high volume of youth crime, or serious youth crime: officers in communities with “not very much” youth crime are more likely to take the youth’s age into account (40%, versus 23% of officers in other communities), and officers in communities with a problem of serious violent youth crime are less likely to take the youth’s age into account (14%, versus 29% of other officers).

Officers in jurisdictions with Crown screening are very unlikely to consider the youth’s age in their decision-making (Figure V.12). We can offer no explanation for this.

Figure V.12 Regional distribution of views on the impact on decision-making of the youth’s age

Figure V.12 Regional distribution of views on the impact on decision-making of the youth’s age


Officers working in the Atlantic region or the Territories are also more likely to consider age to be a factor than police in other areas of Canada. Examination of percentages by individual province shows that this is true in only two of the four Atlantic provinces: New Brunswick (60% consider it to be a factor) and Nova Scotia (50%). For New Brunswick, we have no explanation; but in Nova Scotia, it is probably related to the “two-tiered” youth justice system, in which 12 to 15 year olds are treated differently from 16 and 17 year olds. For example, in Halifax Police Service, investigating officers fill out a form in all cases involving youth aged 12 to 15, which stipulates explicitly whether they have considered pre-charge diversion and asks for an explanation if they are not recommending diversion; and this police service also has a dedicated officer who reviews all cases involving youth aged 12 to 15, in order to ensure that as many as possible are diverted pre-charge. The weight placed on the youth’s age by officers in the Territories may be related to the relatively offender-oriented approach, in some case approaching the social worker role, adopted by some officers stationed there. [102]

30% of the male officers, versus none of the female officers, whom we interviewed said that they consider age to be a factor in their decision-making. Finally, almost one-half (46%) of the officers with five years or less of service take age into consideration, compared to 31% of officers with six or more years of service.


  • [100] (1983; Doob & Chan, 1982) concluded that the correlation between the youth's age and the likelihood of being charged was explained by other correlated factors; i.e. its impact is indirect, or mediated.
  • [101] So few officers consider it a major factor that we have omitted them from the following breakdowns.
  • [102] Cf. the discussion above of the relationship between policing a First Nations reserve and consideration of the youth's age; also Chapter III, Section 4.2.4

Date modified: