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Monday, November 21, 2005

Study: Referrals and convictions in youth and criminal courts


The majority of young people who have contact with Canada's youth courts and adult criminal courts are one-time offenders, according to a new study that traced the criminal "careers" of 59,000 young people.

The study found that the majority of these young people were referred to court on only one occasion, dispelling the image that most youth who come into contact with courts become chronic offenders.

In fact, only a small percentage of repeat offenders were responsible for the majority of court-related activity.

The study followed the criminal history of these young people over a 10-year period from the ages of 12 to 21, inclusive. It profiles one-time and repeat offenders, as well as analyzes factors such as the frequency of their offences, and the onset and termination of their court appearances.

The findings provide a more complete picture of the history of these young offenders than one-time snapshots from individual surveys would allow.

For example, chronic offenders, or those with five or more incidents, accounted for only 16% of all offenders. But they were responsible for nearly 60% of all court referrals involving this specific group.

The study found that the younger an individual is at the time of first offence, the higher the propensity to re-offend. Offenders who began their court "career" with an incident that occurred when they were 12 had an average of 7.9 court referrals. Those who were 21 at the time of their first offence had an average of only 1.2 referrals. This holds true after taking into account the shorter period of time available for re-offending for those who committed a first offence at older ages.

Note to readers

This release is based on the first multi-jurisdictional study of the criminal "careers" of a specific cohort, or group, of one-time and repeat offenders. It was a joint project of the University of Waterloo and the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics at Statistics Canada.

The study traced the path through the court system of all people born between April 1, 1979 and March 31, 1980, who had at least one charge related to a federal statute offence which was referred to youth court or adult (criminal court) between April 1, 1991 and March 31, 2003. This period, between the ages of 12 and 21 inclusive, spans the time the cohort passed from youth to young adulthood.

The term "criminal career" refers to the sequence of incidents in which an individual is involved, which result in charges being laid, and a referral to court, whether or not the individual is convicted of the charge(s).

The term does not imply that crime is being used as a means of earning a living. Rather it focuses specifically on the sequencing of offending over a specified period of time in an individual's life. This usage is consistent with previous research which generally relies on records of police contacts or court referrals as evidence of criminal activity.

The term "referral" signifies offences brought to court that occurred on the same date, whether or not there was a finding of guilt.

One limitation of this study is that it may under-represent, in some analyses, the full extent of re-offending by those whose first offence occurred at 20 years of age or older. Where possible, the "time at risk," or time available for re-offending for this age group, has been taken into account.

This study used linked court data files to profile the path through courts of all individuals born during the year between April 1, 1979 and March 31, 1980 in six provinces: Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Collectively, these provinces account for 78% of Canada's population.

In total, some 323,300 people were born in 1979/80. Of this total, about 59,000 were referred to youth court or adult criminal court in relation to offences committed from the time they turned 12 in 1991/92, to the time they were still 21 in 2001/02.

This was the equivalent of about 18 individuals for every 100 born during 1979/80.

Little of this type of research has been done in Canada. However, the results tend to confirm the findings of similar studies conducted in other nations, such as Denmark, England, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States.

Seven in 10 referred to court found guilty of at least one offence

Males comprised the vast majority (80%) of the group of 59,000 people referred to courts during the 10-year period, according to the study.

Of these individuals, 72% or around 42,200, were found guilty of at least one offence, although the pattern varied widely between the sexes. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of males were found guilty of at least one offence, compared with 61% of females.

The study found that the patterns of court referral for males and females were similar. However, the prevalence among females rose relatively faster at younger ages, and peaked earlier.

The largest group of females was referred to court at the age of 16, while the peak age of referral for their male counterparts was 18.

Majority of offenders referred to court on only one occasion

The study found that the majority of these young people were referred to court on only one occasion, dispelling the image that most youth who come into contact with the courts become chronic offenders. A small percentage of offenders were responsible for the majority of court-related activity.

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Just over one-half (55%) of the alleged offenders had a court career consisting of only one incident. About 63% of females were one-time offenders, compared with 53% of males.

"Repeat offenders" those referred to court in relation to two to four criminal incidents, accounted for about 28% of all alleged offenders.

"Chronic offenders," defined as persons referred to court in relation to five or more criminal incidents, made up the remaining 16%. Although chronic offenders made up the smallest group, they were responsible for 58% of all court referrals involving the 59,000 young people.

Overall, offenders had an average of 3.1 referrals to court with males averaging 3.3 referrals, and females 2.4.

Likelihood of re-offending greater for those who began at an earlier age

The likelihood that a young person would re-offend was much greater for those who began their criminal career at an earlier age, according to the study.

Offenders who began their court career with an incident occurring when they were 12 had an average of 7.9 court referrals. On the other hand, those whose first experience in court occurred at the age of 21 had an average of only 1.2 referrals.

The study found a continuing strong relationship between the age at which the first court referral took place and the overall number of referrals in the court career. This relationship held even after controlling for the amount of time available for re-offending, that is, the short time to their 22nd birthday for those who began offending at older ages.

Four out of 10 offenders began their court careers in connection with an incident that occurred after the age of 18. This may reflect a tendency on the part of police, prosecutors, and other screening agencies to deal with alleged offenders younger than 15 by means other than the court process.

Sections of the Young Offenders Act (in effect during the period covered by the study) specifically encouraged the use of alternatives to the formal court process for dealing with young people where it was appropriate and available.

As additional years of court data become available, future research will be able to follow court careers past the age of 21 into adulthood. This will result in a more complete picture of the court careers of chronic, persistent offenders. It will also allow a more thorough investigation of the court careers of adult offenders who had no contact with the court system during adolescence.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey numbers, including related surveys, 3309 and 3312.

The report Court Careers of a Canadian Birth Cohort (85-561-MIE2005006, free), which is part of the Crime and Justice Research Paper Series is now available online. From the Our products and services page, under Browse our Internet publications, choose Free, then Justice.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts or methods of this release, contact Client Services (1-800-387-2231; 613-951-9023) at the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

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Date Modified: 2005-11-21 Important Notices