Globe and Mail

Youth crime in Canada has small hard core

Poverty and abuse common factors among many boys and girls charged with offences

Wednesday, December 16, 1998
Timothy Appleby
The Globe and Mail

Almost a quarter of all the criminal charges laid in Canada last year were against youths, but a small pool of hardcore kid criminals accounted for most of the charges.

The bad apples -- about 5 per cent of all youths aged 12 to 17 -- share some common traits. A composite profile shows that he (and the odds are still 4-1 it will be he rather than she, although criminality among teenage girls appears to be rising) is likely to be poor, abused and perhaps bored.

"For the vast majority, it's poverty and a lack of family structure," says Staff Sergeant Chuck Ferry, a veteran of some of Toronto's meanest streets and now the supervisor of the Toronto Police Service's youth program. "Numerous of the kids are the products of abuse, and have themselves become abusive.

"Single-parent families -- where the father is not in the picture -- that seems to be a common element. We all have a sense of wanting to belong to something, and if kids can't belong to a family, they find their own family.

The Statistics Canada figures, culled from 179 mostly urban police forces, found the most typical young offender, among the 121,122 Canadian youths charged with a criminal offence in 1997, was a male aged 16 or 17.

Of those 121,122 accused, 78 per cent were boys and 22 per cent female -- a shift from an 84-16 ratio 10 years earlier.

The current percentage places the male-female ratio approximately in line with the adult criminal world. Adult geographical patterns are reflected similarly, generally rising from east to west.

'We all have a sense of wanting to belong to something, and if kids can't belong to a family, they find their own family.'

Where violence is involved -- 18 per cent of the charges, about double the percentage compared with 1987 -- the bulk (56 per cent) is directed at other youths, usually male, though more than 20 per cent of the youth-violence incidents reported to police last year occurred on school property.

In the adult world, by contrast, violence chiefly occurs within homes.

The young criminal also has a good chance of getting caught, though not of being incarcerated. More than two-thirds of the charges laid against youths result in a guilty plea, with two-thirds of those convictions resulting in probation. Just 16 per cent of those convicted go to jail.




Boys do more crime and more time, and they're more likely than girls to go wrong again. But their rate of run-ins with the law has plunged recently.

In all categories of law-breaking, from property offences to violence to drugs, the boys outdo the girls.

Yet that pattern seems to be shifting. While crime among both young males and females has been declining in recent years, the drop among males has been far more dramatic.

Since peaking at a rate of 1,022 reported offences per 10,000 population in 1991, the boys' numbers have dropped 27 per cent, to a current level of 751 offences. Among females, the drop was just 7 per cent.

Property offences L chiefly theft -- show a particularly sharp decline among youths. The 1997 rate of 369 offences per 10,000 is down 42 per cent from its 1991 peak.

Youths who are convicted are likely to earn slightly longer jail terms than young females -- an average of six weeks for boys and one month for girls.

As well, boys are more likely to be repeat offenders. Of those convicted in 1996-97,

'An awful lot of this has to do with the media emphasis on it, but there is violence occurring that wasn't there when I went to school.'

43 per cent of the males had been convicted before, compared with 32 per cent of the girls.

And while the ratio of violence among young females has steadily been inching upward -- or at any rate, the reported ratio, a difference stressed by criminologists mindful of today's zero-tolerance social climate -- boys still account for the great majority of youthful violent offences.

Among Toronto's estimated 2,000 gang members, for instance, the collective profile that emerges is of young people who are poor, unemployed, victims of abuse and neglect -- and overwhelmingly male.

Although violent crime has dipped in the past five years, there has been a qualitative long-term change in the nature of that violence, says Staff Sergeant Chuck Ferry, supervisor of the Toronto Police Service's youth program. He says the trend can be traced back to the early 1980s.

"An awful lot of this has to do with the media emphasis on it, but there is violence occurring that wasn't there when I went to school; we never used to see one kid stabbing another, or shooting another. So I would have to say it's more violent."




Girls seem to reach their peak before boys do, then tend to break the law less and less once they are past the vulnerable 14-to-15 age group.

As in other matters, in crime, girls tend to reach their prime earlier than boys.

Young accused males are most commonly aged 16 to 17, but the most typical female offender is 14 to 15 -- an age group that accounted for 43 per cent of all the girls charged last year.

But girls tend to break the law less and less, once past the vulnerable 14-to-15 age group, whereas with boys the reverse applies. The 1997 data show that among juvenile male law breakers, 15 per cent were 12 or 13, 36 per cent were aged 14 to 15, and 49 per cent -- the largest subgroup -- were 16 or 17.

That seems to indicate that girls become less crime-prone as they get older.

"They may begin sooner and end sooner, which follows the normal development of teenagers," said Fred Mathews, a psychologist with Central Toronto Youth Services. "Girls tend to grow up faster.

But girls who break the law share many similarities with their male counterparts.

At the lower end of criminality, such as theft, no special gender patterns emerge, Mr. Mathews said. But where violent crime occurs, Mr. Mathews perceives significant common factors among boys and girls.

"There tend to be learning difficulties, a history of violence or abuse in the families, severe corporal punishment, mental-health problems, and low levels of self-esteem." Among girls, Mr. Mathews says, "you do see slightly higher levels of emotional and psychological disturbance, higher levels of sexual abuse and of depression. But the similarities [with males] are far, far greater.

Certainly, girls' share of the crime statistics ties has steadily increased in recent years But that may not mean that girls' behaviour has undergone radical change.

Rather, in the view of University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, it may just be under greater scrutiny. A brawl in the schoolyard that at one time might have been disregarded by authorities is now liable to end up with a 911 call to police. And in that climate, Prof. Wortley suggests, girls may be especially vulnerable to charges.

"People argue that because of women's liberation, women are becoming more aggressive or likely to engage in these activities. I would really question that -- I think there's a lot more criminal-justice focus on women. But the perception that female criminality is up definitely exists ... and there may be more sensitivity among school officials and parents and police, saying 'Okay, we can't coddle them more.' "


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