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Black youth more likely to be charged and less likely to be cautioned for minor crimes, study of Durham police data finds

Black youth more likely to be charged and less likely to be cautioned for minor crimes, study of Durham police data finds
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Young Black people were less likely than white and other youth of colour to be cautioned by police for certain minor criminal offences and more likely to be charged, according to a new study of data from the Durham Regional Police Service.

The study, examined nearly 6,500 cases between 2007 to 2013 for differences in how a young person was treated on a first offence for simple drug possession or minor theft charges — the two most common offences faced by Canadian youth.

Overall, Durham officers used their discretion to caution more than half of all young people facing these offences, while another 31 per cent were ordered to go to a formal youth diversion program, and thus also avoided court, and the remaining 15 per cent were charged.

The fact the vast majority of youth were not charged is consistent with the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which seeks to limit formal court proceedings for young people caught for less serious offences, author Kanika Samuels-Wortley noted in her paper.

But, she found, the outcomes varied with the race of the young accused. Black youth — who at the time of the study represented about six per cent of Durham Region’s youth population but 14 per cent of those caught for these offences — were charged in 19 per cent of cases, whereas white youth were charged in 16 per cent of cases and youth of all other racial groups were charged 17 per cent of the time.

Officers did not record the youth’s race in more than 950 cases; that group was treated the most leniently, with only five per cent being charged. (The paper notes that if the “unknown” group matched the racial makeup of the region as a whole, more than 80 per cent white, then the charge rate for the “white” category would be expected to fall significantly.)

In the paper, Samuels-Wortley, a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Waterloo who worked for Durham police as a youth diversion co-ordinator, notes her findings are in keeping with similar studies and suggest that “race has a small but significant effect on police decisions.”

The police service is not named in the paper, but its demographic data matches Durham Region.

Durham police spokesperson Dave Selby confirmed the findings in an email to the Star, saying the service embraces the research.

He added that police analysts have conducted an internal study on a newer set of case records from 2014 to 2018 that suggests the racial differences have since closed.

That study found “no indication of disparity between Black and white youth with respect to the rate of charge or diversion,” he said.

“Over the years, we have invested a ton of time and money into training front-line officers in terms of bias-free policing,” Selby said. “We continue to provide additional training and educational opportunities. We have a robust Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy and continue to message this important information to all of our employees.”

Selby said the service is “passionate about fairness, diversity and equity,” adding that “everyone has biases, including police officers, so it’s important to discuss this openly and to focus our coaching, mentoring and training efforts to recognize and eliminate any biases we uncover.”

In the paper, Samuels-Wortley applauded the service for providing the data, saying it offered a “more nuanced” look at youth diversion programs than had been previously available.

“This study would not have been possible without the commitment of a progressive forward-thinking police chief,” Samuels-Wortley told the Star.

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Overall, two-thirds of the Durham youth theft and drug cases Samuels-Wortley studied involved males; the paper found police treated girls more leniently overall, charging them in 11 per cent of cases, versus 18 per cent for boys.

The racial disparity was especially pronounced looking at cannabis possession cases in isolation: The paper found Black boys were charged 38 per cent of the time, versus 22 per cent for white boys.

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“Overall, these findings are consistent with previous research which suggests that Black males are treated more harshly with respect to North America’s War on Drugs,” Samuels-Wortley said in her paper.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto associate professor in sociology with a focus on criminology, said Samuels-Wortley’s study “extends our understanding of how race influences criminal justice processing in Canada,” and “is particularly important because it focuses on an entry point into the criminal justice system, and does so with a youth population.”
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