Recidivism data would support the work of youth justice organizations: In conversation with Peacebuilders Canada
This piece is part of our series on the administrative data needs of Canadian advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers. This is part of our work to create a policy agenda on administrative data-sharing in collaboration with a Canadian civil society coalition.
Research shows that charging youth with criminal offences has a long-term negative impact, increasing their likelihood of reoffending in the future. Across Canada, youth court diversion programs act as an alternative to prosecution, enabling youth to have criminal charges dropped. These programs focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment, and can involve activities such as community service, participation in workshops or educational programs.
However, approaches to court diversion vary widely across Canadian provinces and across different programs. How can we know which approaches are most effective? This is one of the questions that youth justice nonprofit Peacebuilders Canada is asking. Peacebuilders has run restorative, court-diversion programs for youth aged 12-18 charged with criminal offences in the Greater Toronto Area since 2004. We spoke to Sara Fruchtman, Peacebuilders’ Manager of Public Policy, Research and Communications, about how access to administrative data on recidivism could help support the organization’s research, evaluation, and advocacy efforts.
What data on recidivism could tell us about diversion program impact
Since the Youth Criminal Justice Act was introduced in 2003 in response to the over-incarceration of youth, court diversion has steadily increased, while levels of youth incarceration have decreased. It is, however, also useful to understand the longer-term impact of diversion—such as the extent to which diversion influences a young person’s likelihood of reoffending. These data would allow individual organizations like Peacebuilders to understand the impact of their interventions; and across programs, they would help illuminate which approaches to diversion are most successful. (For instance: is community mentorship program more effective than an anger management program?)
It is challenging for individual organizations to track whether youth reoffend after they exit a diversion program. Youth often move around the city, or may interact with a different courthouse down the line. However, data on reoffending are already documented in police or courthouse records as administrative, or operational, data. YouthRex, an organization focused on research and evaluation on youth well-being, has explicitly stated a need for data-sharing strategies that facilitate agency access to police data, in order to better understand how to reduce youth recidivism. What could such a data-sharing process look like?
Data-sharing on recidivism is already happening outside of Canada
Repurposing administrative data to evaluate recidivism outcomes is already being explored in the UK. The Justice Data Lab helps nonprofits rehabilitating past offenders analyze data on their program participants’ re-offending rates. Run by the Ministry of Justice, the lab is able to access and analyze data from the Police National Computer database. The lab provides nonprofits with aggregate statistics on their participants’ reoffending rates, as well as comparison statistics of a control group—allowing them to draw some conclusions around program impact. An analogous service in the Canadian context would allow policy researchers to explore a number of unaddressed questions. Fruchtman discussed two youth justice advocacy areas that could be supported by better access to administrative data on recidivism.
Identifying factors underlying racial disparities in the youth justice system
While youth incarceration rates, on average, have declined since 2003, this same trend does not apply to Indigenous youth, who continue to be overrepresented in the youth justice system. In 2016-2017, Indigenous youth represented a striking 46% of young people admitted to correctional services Canada, despite representing only ~8% of the total youth population. Data suggest that Black youth are similarly overrepresented in Ontario’s correctional facilities. In addition to reflecting a legacy of colonialism and systemic discrimination, Fruchtman says it’s possible that Black and Indigenous youth are not referred to diversion programs to the same extent that their white peers are. It’s also possible that the diversion programs racialized youth are participating in are not culturally relevant or appropriate. Testing these hypotheses could inform changes to policy and practice, but there is currently a lack of data to do so.
This could change. While its implementation is still unclear, under the Anti-Racism Act (2017), Ontario will require public sector organizations in the areas of child welfare, education, and justice to collect race-based data to identify the factors underlying systemic racism. With the right data-sharing policies in place (and importantly, ones that ensure youth privacy and confidentiality are protected), data on diversion and recidivism could be linked with race-based data. This could help elucidate whether racialized youth are underrepresented in diversion programs, and what impact this has long-term.
Understanding the impact of youth court closures
Peacebuilders also engages in research and advocacy around local issues—such as the impact of future youth court closures on young offenders in Toronto. Last year, the the Ministry of the Attorney General announced plans to close Toronto’s three youth courthouses and centralize adult and youth services in a single courthouse downtown. Some have expressed concern that this “super-courthouse” will not meet the specialized needs of young people. Fruchtman suggests that appearing at a massive courthouse could have negative effects on youth’s sense of self—potentially causing further harm, and increasing the likelihood of reoffending long-term.
Peacebuilders is conducting interviews with youth on their experiences across Toronto’s courthouses to investigate potential differences between youth’s experiences in adult versus youth courthouses. Fruchtman says that access to additional data on youth recidivism rates across courthouses could help illuminate whether certain courthouse practices are more effective—or more harmful—than others. It may also provide insights into what kinds of diversion practices are most effective for racialized youth.
For data to inform youth justice in Canada, changes to data-sharing policy and practice are needed
Further research is required to understand the potential data-sharing infrastructure and/or policy changes needed to enable greater nonprofit access to data on recidivism in Canada. Nevertheless, the utility of a data-sharing service similar to the UK’s Data Justice Lab in the Canadian context is clear. We’re grateful to be collaborating with organizations like Peacebuilders to understand the the impact administrative data can have on advancing advocacy efforts in Canada. You can follow the work of Peacebuilders at: @PeacebuildersCA and learn more about the organization at: peacebuilders.ca