Police Discretion with Young Offenders
V. Situational Factors Affecting Police Discretion
Conly (1978) found that apprehended youth who were not living with their parents or relatives were more likely to be charged, but noted that these results were far from definitive, as such a high proportion (87%) of those youths charged were living with their parents or relatives. Doob found that youth bureau officers referred youth to court in preference to taking formal action when they believed that the youth’s family situation had “failed” (1983: 159). In focus group interviews, Canadian police officers identified two factors that youth who are in trouble with the law share:
- (i) a lack of employment, and
- (ii) a lack of physical space where they can ‘hang out’ with their friends (Caputo & Kelly, 1997).
Three-quarters of the respondents in our sample indicated they consider a young person’s home and school environments to varying degrees in their decision-making. Figure V.15 shows the substantial variety of opinions held by police officers concerning how much consideration a young person’s home and school environment should be given.
Regional variations in officers’ opinions of the importance of the youth’s home and school situations are shown in Figure V.16. The weight given to this factor by police in Quebec may be another example of the more welfare-oriented approach to youth justice in that province.
As we found for other personal characteristics, the home and school situations of the youth are less likely to be taken into account by officers working in communities with a problem of serious property crime by youth (36% of officers said it is a factor or major factor, versus 48% of other officers), or serious violent youth crime (36% versus 43%). However, they are more likely to be taken into account by officers working in communities with a problem of youth prostitution (67% said it is a factor or major factor, versus 40% of other officers) and in agencies which include a First Nations reserve in their jurisdiction (47% versus 40%)
There were also variations in responses based on the officer’s level of authority, location of service, and previous experience in a youth squad. Supervisors were much more likely (60%) than practitioners (39%) to say that they consider a young person’s home background in their decision-making. Youth squad officers were more likely (53%) to take a young person’s home situation into account than officers located in patrol (38%), schools (35%), GIS (43%) or in management (43%). This may be the result of the more welfare-oriented approach of youth squad officers, and also of their exclusive focus on youth that allows them more time to investigate thoroughly the young person’s situation. These experiences on youth squad appear to carry over upon reassignment to other units. Officers who had previous experience working in a youth squad were twice as likely (50%) as those who had never worked in a youth section (24%) to take the home and school situation into consideration.
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