Decision-Making and Young Offenders: Examining the Role of Discretion in Police Judgments

By McKillop, Dianne; Pfeifer, Jeffrey | Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Decision-Making and Young Offenders: Examining the Role of Discretion in Police Judgments


McKillop, Dianne, Pfeifer, Jeffrey, Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services


Police employ a significant amount of discretion when dealing with juvenile offenders. Specifically, officers often have to decide whether to issue an informal warning, a formal warning, or apprehend a juvenile offender. The decision may depend on various extra-legal influences such as an officer's experience, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs. The dynamics surrounding these discretionary decisions deserve examination given research suggesting they may be subject to cognitive biases. This paper presents data from Western Australian police officers' reports on incidents involving juvenile offenders. The reports include information regarding specific reasons for the action taken and the importance assigned to them. Results indicate consistencies. The data are discussed in terms of their input into structuring discretionary decision making.

It is widely acknowledged that, like many other professions, police work involves the use of a significant amount of discretion. In fact, landmark studies conducted during the 1960s and 70s indicate that discretionary decisions are a staple of the policing profession (see e.g., Piliavin & Briar, 1964) and it is now generally accepted that discretionary decision-making serves a central, rather than a peripheral, function with regard to police work (de Lint, 1997). Further, it has been argued that the increasingly important police functions of maintaining order and serving the community are especially well-served by discretionary decision-making due to the fact that it can enhance the effectiveness of these functions by allowing officers to make flexible, common-sense decisions that are based on local knowledge and their experience of what works (Livingston, 1997).

According to White and Perrone (1997, p.39), "the issue of police discretion is particularly pertinent in relation to young people, given the substantial discretionary latitude extended to police through the growth in diversionary juvenile justice mechanisms". This approach is certainly reflected in Western Australia where formal guidelines have been developed that give police officers a number of options for dealing with young offenders. The Young Offenders Act (1994) and the Western Australian Police Service Commissioner's Orders and Procedures Manual (1998) include options of taking no action, issuing an informal caution, issuing a formal caution, referral to a juvenile justice team, summons to appear before children's court, or arrest. It is argued that these dispositional choices are meant to ensure the most appropriate outcome for the youth and the justice system due to the fact that the discretionary latitude afforded officers allows them to take into account both the legal and extra-legal aspects of an incident.

Although the above approach to "young offender justice" may be heralded by some, the use of discretion in policing has also been the subject of some criticism. Specifically, it has been suggested that the use of discretion in police work can result in confusion over appropriate police practice which causes conflict at the operational level (James & Polk, 1996). Even more serious, however, is the claim that discretionary decision-making may provide an avenue for the introduction of police officers' personal and cultural biases into the application of the law. For example, White and Perrone (1997, p.62) state that, "far from being a neutral process, discretionary decision-making involves systematic procedural bias". It has also been alleged that the benefits of police discretion are selective because of the influence of different levels of compliance with officers' perceptions of offenders' appropriate attitude and demeanour (James & Polk, 1996).

In terms of the above criticisms, there is some empirical evidence that, in young offender interventions, non-relevant extra-legal factors such as a youth's socioeconomic status, demeanour, attitude, degree of cooperation, and race have influenced some officers' decisions about offender disposition (White, 1992; Williams, 1984). …

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