Youth Offenders

New Study Finds Black Youth More Likely to Be Charged in Durham

Written on behalf of Barrison Law

A recent study entitled “Youthful Discretion:  Police Selection Bias in Access to Pre-Charge Diversion Programs in Canada” published in the journal Race and Justice has found that “[r]ace has a small but statistically significant impact on arrest decisions”.


Kanika Samuels-Wortley, a doctoral candidate in criminology at the University of Waterloo, examined nearly 6,500 cases between 2007 and 2013 to see how young people were treated on a first offence for simple drug possession or minor theft charges.  These are two of the most common offences that Canadian youth face in the criminal justice system.

Although the paper does not name Durham police as the police service used to collect the data, the demographic data was found to match the Durham region.

According to the data, officers were found to use their discretion to caution more than half of the young people facing the offences, while 31% were ordered to go to a formal youth diversion program (and avoid court), and the remaining 15% were charged.

These figures were promising and consistent with the principles set out in the Youth Criminal Justice Act (“YCJA”), which aims to limit the number of court proceedings for youth involved in less serious offences. 

The YCJA applies to young persons between the ages of 12 and 18.  The YCJA sets out that the youth criminal justice system in Canada is intended to:

  1. Prevent crime by addressing the circumstances underlying a young person’s offending behaviour;
  2. Rehabilitate young persons who commit offences and reintegrate them into society; and
  3. Ensure that a young person is subject to meaningful consequences for the offence in order to promote the long-term protection of the public.

In keeping with these principles, the YCJA allows for extrajudicial measures to be used to address young people who have committed offences.  Extrajudicial measures are defined as measures other than judicial proceedings.  Police officers are required to consider whether extrajudicial measures, such as issuing a warning, administering a caution or referring the individual to a community program or agency, would be more appropriate than proceeding to court.


According to Samuels-Wortley’s findings, the outcomes of how police treated the youth they encountered were somewhat affected by the race of the accused youth.  She found that Black youth were charged in 19% of cases, whereas White youth were charged in 16% of cases, and youth of other racial backgrounds were charged in 17% of cases. At the time of the study, Black youth represented only 6% of the youth population in Durham region.

Samuel-Wortley also found that young women were treated more leniently overall than males, with 11% of young women being charged, in comparison to 18% of young men being charged.

One of the largest racial disparities was found when examining cannabis possession cases.  In these cases, Black youth were charged 38% of the time, in comparison to White youth being charged 22% of the time.


Dave Selby, a spokesperson for Durham police, in an email to the Star, acknowledged the findings by Samuel-Wortley and advised that Durham police accepted her research. 

Selby also informed the Star that an internal study of more recent case records by Durham police from 2014 to 2018 has been conducted which suggests that the racial gaps have closed.  However, this study has not been made available to the public.

Selby stated:

Over the years we have invested a ton of time and money into training front-line officers in terms of bias-free policing.  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.

… [E]veryone 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.


An investigation by the Toronto Star in 2017 examined Toronto Police Services data regarding marijuana arrests and charges from 2003 to 2013. 

Toronto Police were found to have arrested 11,299 people for possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana, who had no prior convictions.  According to the data, police recorded these individuals skin colour as follows:  52.8% were White, 25.2% were Black, 15.7% were Brown and 6.3% were categorized as “other”. 

The investigation found that the rate of arrest for Black individuals was significantly higher than their population according to the 2006 census (8.4%).  According to the 2006 census, White individuals made up 53.1% of Toronto’s population.

This investigation also found that most of the individuals caught with possessing marijuana who did not have a prior conviction were released at the scene, however, 15.2% (the highest rate among the racial groups) of the Black individuals were detained for a bail hearing.

In regards to young people, the Star investigation found that 15% of the Black youth were detained for a bail hearing in comparison to 3.2% of the White youth.

If you are a youth that has been charged with a crime, or are the parent of a young person that has been charged with a crime, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Barrison Law online or at 905-404-1947.  Our skilled criminal lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our client’s rights.  We maintain a 24-hour call service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.