Youth crime rates and the youth justice system.

AuthorSprott, Jane B.

It is well known that there is a good deal of variation across provinces in the administration of our youth justice laws. Whether examining the Juvenile Delinquents Act (JDA) (1908-1984), the Young Offenders Act (YOA) (1984-2003), or the more recent Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) (implementation started in April 2003), many have commented on the variation in how Canada's three youth justice laws have been implemented (see, e.g., Carrington 1998; 1999; Doob and Sprott 1996; Trepanier 2004). Variation in the administration of the JDA was hardly surprising, given that the maximum age of jurisdiction varied across provinces and the law covered almost any conceivable misbehaviour on the part of a youth. However, the YOA, with uniform ages and only criminal code and other federal offences, was also unevenly administered across provinces.

Looking at the rate of youths charged by police, Carrington (1999) found considerable variation during the last few years of the JDA and the first decade of the YOA. Saskatchewan, in the dying days of the JDA, had the lowest charge rate, and Manitoba and BC the highest. Under the YOA, Quebec had the lowest charge rate, and Saskatchewan had the highest. On the basis of his analyses, Peter Carrington noted that the YOA had changed the manner in which youths were dealt with in the various provinces:

The YOA does appear to have caused a substantial increase in the rate of young persons charged in Canada, by causing an increase in the proportion of apprehended youth who were charged--that is, a reduction in the use of police discretion--in some jurisdictions ... Quebec is the only province in which the rate of young persons charged has declined since 1986. (Carrington 1999: 26) Given the different charging practices across provinces, it is perhaps not surprising that there was substantial variation in the use of youth court in the various provinces (Doob and Sprott 1996). In an early study, we found that the rates of bringing youths into court (and finding them guilty) in 1993/1994 in Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and BC were substantially different (Doob and Sprott 1996). Quebec and BC brought youths into court (and subsequently found them guilty) at lower rates than did Saskatchewan and Ontario. This variation, however, was not explained by variation in police-recorded crime. For example, BC had the highest overall crime rate and violent crime rate (in terms of the number of incidents recorded by the police), yet British Columbia youths were brought to court at a rate that was not dramatically different from that of Quebec. The conclusion, then, was that the use of youth court was likely a decision--implicit or explicit--to use the justice system to respond to offending rather than being a measure of offending by youths. As we suggested at that time,

We doubt very much that the variation that we have illustrated is due to the behaviour of young people. Quebec may be distinct, and British Columbia may claim to be special, but it is unlikely that the youths in these two provinces are angels in comparison to those found in Newfoundland, Ontario and Saskatchewan. (Doob and Sprott, 1996: 409) Under the current legislation--the YCJA--there is still variation among provinces. Looking at the rate at which youths were brought into court in 2003/2004 (the first year under the YCJA), Thomas (2005, Table 7: 17) found that, consistent with the trends found under the previous laws, Quebec and BC used youth court the least, while Saskatchewan relied most heavily on youth court. Between these two extremes, the eastern provinces tended to rely on court a little more than did Quebec and BC, followed (in terms of increasing use) by Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba.

While some, including us, see variation across provinces in police contacts or the use of youth court largely as measures of the choices made by those in the justice system in response to youth crime, others infer that variation in these measures can be used as proxy measures for variation in rates of offending by youths. Indeed, it would appear that the number of youths apprehended (or charged) for offences is routinely interpreted as an indicator of the actual amount of crime in society. For example, in a report that largely dealt with self-report delinquency (Savoie 2007, Fig. 2: 7), a graph of youths recorded by the Toronto police as having been involved in crime is presented under the title "Youth Crime Trend Changing, Toronto, 1977 to 2005." Aside from other difficulties people might have in interpreting the graph, it is clearly, at best, a report of youths apprehended (and charged or not) by the police. In addition to offences that either were not noticed or recorded as offences (e.g., shopliftings or possession of drugs in which youths were not apprehended) and offences that were recorded by the police but where an offender was not identified (e.g., a break-and-enter committed by a youth where the offender was never identified), it apparently omits what seem to be large numbers of contacts police had with youths suspected of offending that were recorded by the Toronto police only on contact cards (Sprott, Doob, and Greene 2004). More generally, the number of youths apprehended by the police is clearly quite different from the numbers for what youths actually do.

Presenting police-recorded crime in this way--as a measure of crime in society--may help to explain how federal ministers responsible for public safety can confuse criminal justice indicators of the processing of youths for indicators of youth crime. The Globe and Mail on 9 June 2007 reports that:

Federal crime-prevention programs are undergoing a "repositioning" to focus on what works at the community level to combat rising levels of youth crime, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said yesterday.... The minister said statistics available for 2004-5 show a "disturbing" 3 percent increase in youth crime in Nova Scotia and a 7 percent rise in violent crime--figures that correspond with rates across the country. (Day thinking locally 2007) The minister would not, unfortunately, have had to search far for an equating of youth crime rate and charge-rate measures. Statistics Canada (2007b), for example, reports charge-rate figures for youths for the period 2001 and 2005 under the subtitle "Youth Crime Rate Declines." In this case, however, they explicitly note that police have choices other than simply charging an apprehended youth. Nevertheless, the heading is unfortunate given the data because the rates at which youths are charged and/or cautioned by the police may or may not reflect underlying rates of offending by youths. In fact, the headline is inconsistent with the text, which notes that the measure reported does not describe crime. Moreover, the text explicitly notes that the proportion of apprehended youths who were charged had dropped between 2002 (the last full year of the YOA) and 2005 (the last year included in the chart that is being described). One assumes that part of this drop occurred as a result of the change in the law (and a consequent change in the administration of youth justice law), not as a result of a change in the behaviour of youths. Hence, the details in the text partially explain that the abbreviated summary in the subtitle does not...

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