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From sheriff to shepherd: A new path for dealing with young offenders

March 11, 2024  By Mike Norman

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Not very long ago, I was putting together a course for police officers. The idea was to put some training together on how to deal with young people. Even speaking about them as young persons and not young offenders was shocking, even though it was legislated in the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in 2002. Dealing with young persons may activate ideas around reform and using community resources to get them back on track rather than punishing offenders. If we can make this change in our language, then we can start to see offenders who are young as young persons who we can help get back on track. After a bit of research, I realized that the police and the courts were measuring the success of apprehension and rehabilitation in drastically different ways. Officers thought guilty with a custody sentence was a success, while crown attorneys sought non-custodial measures of reform. Not being aligned in our goals can cause stress and resentment in officers when they go to court expecting a custody sentence and not get that outcome.

So, I suggest reimagining success; moving from sheriff to shepherd, the way society and the courts have asked us to do it. Bear in mind that I am not talking about the worst of the worst; the YCJA speaks specifically to those issues where we can use adult sentences when the young person is a serious problem. It also makes a clear distinction between violent offences and non-violent. I’m mainly talking about the less extreme, non-violent examples.

The courts will use custody only after we have exhausted all other options. This stems from the very first words stated in the YCJA: “Whereas members of society share a responsibility to address the developmental challenges and the needs of young persons and to guide them into adulthood” (2002).

Remember, shepherds rather than sheriffs. An officer bringing charges to youth court expecting the court to “teach them a lesson” is already in a losing position. The courts are looking to punish, but not to deter, because that does very little good. Deterrence is an unreasonable objective because the research says that telling a young person about the risks around driving, unprotected sex and substance abuse has little to no effect on their behaviour (Steinberg, 2007). Even if a 14-year-old knows all the risks and could change their behaviour, they will not properly evaluate risk. Cognitively, they are just not there yet. The first half of the teen years is governed by strong urges to fit into a peer group, and the second half is governed by mate selection with equal or, perhaps, stronger urges (Buss, 2019). All of this says decision-making is not being done in a meaningful way by teens. They willingly sacrifice the self to fit into the group without concern for risk. It could be argued we are punishing them for trying to fit in. If we frame it like that, we can see that custodial sentences are not a deterrent because teens are not thinking about the consequences.


We need to move our goals away from seeking punishment and towards finding ways to keep young people out of crime.

Something commonly said by adults is that the teen “should have known what he was doing was wrong.” Yes, they probably did. That is the point. The research shows that knowing something is wrong is not a determinant factor for teens. Different research identified that when a young person gets arrested, they encounter an “a-ha moment”. This moment is described as the teen self-identifying that they had gone too far and are willing to make changes for the better (Soyer, 2013). Once they can actualize that change, it follows that consequences should be limited to the teen years and expire when they become fully formed adults. This approach has been echoed in the Supreme Court and is the foundation of why youth records expire. Think about it: 25-year-old you was much different than 15-year-old you. Should the 25-year-old carry the mark of bad decisions made by a 15-year-old?

In R. v. B.V.N., the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that deterrence is not a sentencing principle under the YCJA. The approach aims to get young people out of crime. This is a similar approach to that of Minneapolis’ Blueprint for Action (2013), Wrap Around Milwaukee, and many other programs that exist in your area specifically for this purpose. When officers say, “They should do something”, it sounds to me like the programs are not advertised well enough. They are doing something. It is upon us to use the programs as best we can.

We need to move our goals away from seeking punishment and towards finding ways to keep young people out of crime, using non-arrest interventions. This may be a leap for many officers. Perhaps you can consider your worst day as a teen, and whether or not you would have mentioned it during a recruiting interview. I certainly would not have shared mine.

As shepherds, we will do better when we embrace the extra-judicial measures available to us. Remember the “a-ha moment”? Incarcerating a young person effectively removes them from social supports to actualize that moment and surrounds them with bad influencers, increasing the risk of reoffending (Soyer, 2013). As a matter of fact, when controlling for other factors, it has been found that incarceration creates a higher chance of re-arrest than extrajudicial measures (Mendel, 2023).

We need to spend the time to engage youth and spend time with them finding supports. Remember that we are in this job for at least 30 years. If we keep seeing the same people repeatedly then we are doing something wrong; we need to support ideas around getting people out of “the game”.


Det. Mike Norman is a facilitator at the Toronto Police College. He trains officers on Major Case Management, Search Warrant drafting and Youth Crime Investigations. Det. Norman has worked in youth crime, sexual assault and general investigation offices. In December 2023, he achieved a Masters in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

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