Policing Young Offenders: What Role Discretion?

AuthorAnn L. Parker,Rick Sarre
Published date01 December 2008
Date01 December 2008
Subject MatterArticle
Policing young offenders: what role
Ann L. Parkerand Rick Sarre
School of Commerce, UniSA, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001, Australia.
Email: ann@sage.org.au
‡(Corresponding author) School of Commerce, UniSA, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001,
Australia. Email: rick.sarre@unisa.edu.au
Received 30 August 2007; accepted 13 April 2008
Keywords: policing youth, young offenders, police discretion
Ann Parker
completed her PhD with the School
of Commerce, University of South Australia in
2005. Qualified in psychology, she is currently a
senior psychologist with the Government of
South Australia.
Rick Sarre
teaches at the School of Commerce,
University of South Australia and is a former legal
practitioner and human rights advocate. He
teaches Contemporary Issues in Policing for the
South Australia Police (SAPOL) Superintendents
Qualification Programme.
Although police exercise wide discretionary
powers when carrying out their general patrol
duties, it is with respect to young people that
these powers are the most extensive. The present
research examines some of the factors that influ-
ence the use of police discretionary powers with
young offenders. Over 220 sworn police officers
from New South Wales Police responded to
written surveys about the way in which they
routinely dealt with, or planned to deal with,
four offences commonly committed by juvenile
offenders. Results show that police behaviour
towards the same offending may vary greatly,
particularly in relation to minor offences. This is
not particularly surprising, given the plethora of
discretionary and diversionary options that have
been introduced into Australian juvenile justice
and policing legislation in the last decade. The
purpose of giving these options was to provide
police with greater scope to accommodate indi-
vidual differences in offenders. An unintended
consequence of this change, however, has been
greater unpredictability of outcome. Given that
there is a broad range of police officer typologies as
well, a young person’s experience with the law,
especially in relation to minor offending, is
becoming more ‘lottery’-like.
Within Australia (and the Western world in
general), historically speaking, there has
always been concern for juvenile welfare,
given that ‘the heavier or harsher a young
person’s entry into the juvenile justice sys-
tem, the more likely he or she is to con-
tinue offending’ (Beresford, 1993, p. 11).
One consequence is that police discretion
has become pervasive and extensive (James
& Polk, 1996; Prenzler & Sarre, 2002).
Police have a powerful role as the gate-
keepers of the juvenile justice system. They
are usually the first point of contact a young
offender has. Therefore they have a major
impact on the young offender’s experience
of the justice process (James & Polk, 1996).
In many cases, whether a young person
receives a caution or is arrested for an
offence falls simply to police discretion.
Thus, how these discretionary powers are
Page 474
International Journal of Police Science & Management Volume 10 Number 4
International Journal of Police
Science and Management,
Vol. 10 No. 4, 2008, pp. 474–485.
DOI: 10.1350/ijps.2008.10.4.100

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