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This research was a component of a larger study of police decision-making with youth, whose purpose was to understand the ways in which police use their discretion when dealing with young persons who are believed to have violated the law, and to identify the factors which affect this exercise of discretion (Carrington and Schulenberg, 2003). There are many areas of police work in which discretion is exercised. This report is concerned with the police decision concerning the clearance of an incident: whether to lay a charge, or deal informally with the alleged offender. Police in Canada have the duty to enforce the law, but the authority not to charge in any particular case - even the most serious cases (Hornick et al, 1996). Under the Young Offenders Act, when a police officer had reasonable grounds to believe that a young person had committed an offence, s/he could process the youth informally (e.g. by giving a warning, taking the youth home, or referring the youth to another agency) rather than laying a charge1.
The factors which potentially affect police decision-making with youth were examined in the Department of Justice study in three groups: characteristics of the policing environment, such as the nature of the community; characteristics of the police organization, such as its size and degree of bureaucratization; and situational factors, or attributes of the offence and the alleged offender in individual criminal incidents. Two types of data were used to analyze the impact of situational factors on the police decision whether to charge: interviews with police officers, and statistical data from the Incident-Based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (“UCR2”). This report concerns the analysis of situational factors, using UCR2 data.
Multivariate analysis of UCR2 data has been used in the past to study factors affecting police decision-making with youth (Carrington 1996, 1998). The novelty of the present research lies in its creation and use of a variable operationalizing the number of times in the past that the young person had been apprehended by the police. In order to construct this variable, records in the UCR2 for 1995 to 2001 which pertain to the same youth were linked together. This is the first time that research has been done using longitudinally linked records in the UCR2.
A record of prior convictions or prior contacts with the police has been associated with placing youth at a higher risk for being charged (Cicourel, 1968; Conly, 1978; Doob & Chan, 1982; Ericson, 1982; Fisher & Mawby, 1982; Morash, 1984). Whether or not it leads to charges or a conviction, contact with police may label a youth as a probable delinquent, increasing the probability of formal treatment on subsequent contact.
Any statistical analysis of factors associated with the police decision to charge an apprehended youth versus processing him or her informally should include an indicator of prior contacts as an independent variable. On the one hand, inclusion of prior contacts as an independent variable allows assessment of the impact of this variable on the outcome of the incident. On the other hand, failure to account for the impact of prior contacts opens up the possibility of spuriousness: other factors may appear to influence the outcome, whereas in reality they do not. For example, one might find that police charge older youth in higher proportions than younger youth, and—in the absence of a control for prior contacts—conclude that this shows that police are responding to the age of the apprehended youth. If data on prior contacts are available, they can be introduced as a control, and this may reveal that the apparent effect of the youth’s age is in fact due to prior contacts: that older youth are more likely to have prior contacts, and police are more likely to charge youth (of any age) who have prior contacts.
Thus, the working hypotheses of this research were: