Public Perception of Crime and Justice in Canada: A Review of Opinion Polls

8. Youth Justice Issues (continued)

8. Youth Justice Issues (continued)

8.3 Students' knowledge and perception of the Young Offenders Act

A report to the Department of Justice in 1996 (Peterson-Badali, 1996) examined students' knowledge and perceptions of the Young Offender's Act. The report used questionnaires and semi-structured interviews to evaluate a limited sample of Canadian students' understanding of the youth justice system. Students showed good knowledge of the legal terminology, with 61% overall were able to identify the correct definition of the right to retain and instruct counsel. There was an effect for age: students between the ages of 10 and 13 were less able than 14 to 18+ year old students to respond correctly.

Students were also asked to rate the general harshness of dispositions given to young offenders. The rating was made on a five-point scale, ranging from almost always too harsh to almost always too easy. Thirty seven percent of students rated dispositions as about right and often too easy. Twenty percent rated dispositions as almost always too easy.

Interestingly, as age of the students increased, perceptions of dispositions as too lenient also increased. The author attributes this to the possibility that as age increases, so does exposure to public portrayals of youth dispositions as not sufficiently harsh, and to punitive attitudes to youth in general.

With respect to knowledge of age boundaries, less than half of the students were able to correctly identify age 12 as the lower limit. When asked what they thought that the lower age boundary should be, the average age suggested was 11 years old. Students in the 14/15-year age group suggested a lower age than the 10/11-year-olds, which suggested a significantly higher minimum age.

Similar to adults, the students overestimated the percentage of violent youth crime. Female students estimated the prevalence of youth crime at between 50 and 69 percent, while males estimated it to be between 40 and 59 percent. The actual percentage for violent youth crime in 1994 was 18% (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1999).

The report also looks at knowledge as a function of legal education. Legal education had few significant effects on knowledge and perception. Those students with some previous background legal education were more likely to respond correctly to questions relating directly to the law. There were no differences between the legally educated and the legally uneducated with respect to questions addressing perceptions of youth crime.

A study by Jane Sprott in 1998 attempts to shed some light on to the issue of public dissatisfaction with and perceived leniency towards the treatment of young offenders and youth crime in general. The researcher was interested in the relationship between punitive views influencing preferences in specific cases, and general beliefs that the youth system does not work. A sample of 1,006 people throughout Ontario was questioned about either youth or adult crime. Consistent with national Gallup results, the results of this study indicate that 64% of respondents oppose or strongly oppose a separate youth justice system, and 36% favour a separate system. Of those who oppose the separate system, 93.3% thought that youth court sentences were not sufficiently severe, and 72.9% thought that sentences for youth should be as harsh as those for adults. Of those who favoured a separate system, 71.1% thought that sentences were not severe enough and 52.1% thought that sentences should be as harsh as for adults. However, 82.6% of those who opposed a separate system were not supportive of placing youth in the same facilities as adults.

In terms of general perceptions of youth crime, those who opposed a separate system estimated youth recidivism as higher than did those in favour of separate systems. The former was more fearful of walking alone after dark, perceived crime in both the province and the neighborhood as increasing, and believed that the number of youth charged with murder had increased.

When presented with a specific case of a young person found guilty of stealing a TV and VCR from a house, of those who oppose a separate system, 31.7% preferred prison to a community service. This is compared to 20.5% of those who favour a separate system preferring to sentence the youth to prison. Again, those opposed to a separate system appear to be more punitive.

However, when asked about the effectiveness of community service orders (CSO's), those who opposed a separate justice system believed that youth would not complete the work ordered, that they would not learn anything positive and that the CSO would not accomplish accountability. Those did not significantly hold these beliefs in favour of separate systems.

As well, 79% of both those who oppose separate systems and those who favour separation are supportive of investments in alternatives to prisons and not the construction of more prisons. Similarly, 89% favoured an investment in prevention as opposed to prisons. This held true for groups both for and against separate youth justice systems.

Sprott (1998) concluded from the study that people's broad punitive views do not provide adequate explanation for other views. There exists a complex relationship between opposition to separate systems and punitiveness. People may endorse harsh sentences in the abstract, but be more lenient in specific cases. People are not concerned merely with punishment, but have a concern about the youth justice system as being able to successfully implement anything other than imprisonment. For more on this topic, please see Doob, A. 2000; Sprott & Doob, 1997; and Doob, Marinos and Varma, 1995.

8.4 Facts about youth crime

The overall rate of youths charged with Criminal Code offences decreased, continuing a seven-year trend (Canadian Center for Justice Statistics, 1999). Compared to 1991 when youths were charged with criminal code offences at a rate of 6,259 per 100,000, the 1998 rate was 4,363.

The majority of youth crime is property-oriented, and accounts for more than half (51%) of all youth crime, as opposed to 37% of adults charged. While 29% of adults were charged with violent crime, 20% of youth were similarly charged. Other Criminal Code offences such as mischief and offences against the administration of justice account for the remaining 29% of charges, compared with 34% for adults.

It would appear that the rate of violent crime has increased dramatically from a decade ago, when 68% of youths were charged with property crimes and 10% were charged with violent crimes. However, increases in youth charges for common assault (level 1), and decreases in charges for theft and break and enter account for the bulk of the shift.

The rate of youth charged with violent crime declined slightly in 1998 (-1%). The rate of robberies and sexual assaults decreased (-6% and -4% respectively) in 1998, and homicides and assaults increased (+3% and +1% respectively). The overall violent youth crime rate is still considerably higher than it was a decade ago (+77%).

8.5 Section summary

Canadians' concern with young offenders is not warranted, as statistics indicate that youth Criminal Code offences continues to decrease over the past seven years. Of these offences, more than half are property crimes, and only a few are violent. Despite the low numbers of violent offenders, Canadians are increasingly in favour of mandatory adult trials and serving time in adult prisons for youth convicted of violent crimes such as armed robbery, assault, rape and murder.

Date modified: