Youth Justice Research in Canada: An Assessment
Doob, Anthony N., Canadian Journal of Criminology
In the fall of 1994, three of us were asked, by the Department of Justice, Canada, to spend a month producing "a summary review of criminological research, potentially relevant and useful to the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs [of the House of Commons] in ... their review of the Young Offenders Act." We decided that one way to produce a report that would be useful for the committee (and, we hoped, to others) would be to divide the field into a set of questions and do searches for relevant (largely Canadian) research addressing each of these questions.
The result (Doob, Marinos, and Varma 1995) was a report that included a fair amount of Canadian research which allowed us to give (at least tentative) answers to more than fifty policy-related questions concerning the youth justice system in Canada. I am not suggesting that "all is fine" in youth justice research in Canada, but I am suggesting that our experience four years ago convinced me that we knew quite a bit about the youth justice system and, in the four years since, we have extended our knowledge.
As with many areas of criminological research, there are some topics within the broad area of "youth crime" where one can be reasonably comfortable relying on research from other countries. When one looks at the work on the development or treatment of serious delinquency or of the impact of criminal justice (or community) interventions on offending, international research is quite relevant. Few of the findings on the development of serious delinquency that are examined in other countries contradict the extensive work carried out in Canada. It is not surprising that, in reviews written by Canadian researchers, Canadian research is reviewed along side research in other countries (e.g., LeBlanc and Loeber 1998; Tremblay and Craig 1995).
On the other hand, it is important to examine youthful offending in Canada in part because cultural differences and differences in social programs that exist in different countries may affect the relative importance of different factors. Thus projects like the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth which follows Canadian children from birth to adulthood (and which started with a cross-section of children from birth to age 11) should provide useful data on the development of delinquency. This, of course, is predicated on the assumption that reasonable "delinquency measures" will continue to be part of the data that are collected every two years. Unlike some longitudinal studies that focus on delinquency, this survey's focus is elsewhere; hence given the fierce competition for survey time, the survival of delinquency questions is by no means certain. If "delinquency measures" do continue to be included in the survey, the challenge for the criminology community will be to ensure that these data are used sufficiently to justify the considerable cost in collecting them.
I do not want to suggest that we can rely solely on foreign data and these broad Canadian surveys: obviously there are many very specific Canadian issues that need to be looked at within the Canadian context and which are best understood by way of more normal local studies. The apparently large increase in very serious violent youth crime that took place in the late 1980's in the United States (Cook and Laub 1998) but not in Canada serves to remind us of the problems of assuming that crime in one community can be understood by looking at another. But generally speaking, the factors that increase the likelihood that young people will be violent or which increase the likelihood that a youth will come in contact with a youth justice system are going to be similar in many countries.
The operation of the youth justice system
When one looks at the operation of the youth justice system, however, the situation is quite different. Many knowledgeable Canadians, including a couple of recent Ministers of Justice, have stated that Canada imprisons too many young people (see, for example, the Minister of Justice's Strategy for a renewal of youth justice, May 1998). …