Study finds Aboriginal youth are incarcerated at higher rate

A recent study has found that aboriginal youth are incarcerated at a higher rate than non-aboriginal youth.

The study, whose senior author was UBC alum Kora DeBeck, found that even when researchers took into account drug use, homelessness and other factors that put youth at an increased risk for imprisonment, street-involved Aboriginal youth were still more likely to end up incarcerated than street-involved non-Aboriginal youth. 

The study sheds light on potential explanations for the difference in youth incarceration between aboriginal and non-aboriginal groups. Due to general limitations, it cannot, however, highlight specific causes. 

“Often times we’ve seen that when there’s these kinds of discrepancies, some people instantly look and say aboriginal youth are just committing more crimes,” said DeBeck. “But I think what this study shows is that there may be something else happening as well and that there could be different policing practices or just different risks for aboriginal youth.”

This study utilizes data collected through the At-Risk Youth Study (ARYS) between September 2005 and May 2013 which studied youth between the ages of 14 and 26. Participants in the study completed a questionnaire administered by an interviewer once when they became involved with the study and twice a year from then onward.

The primary outcome of interest was recent incarceration — which is defined as spending a night in detention, prison or jail in the last six months — compared to youth who had not been incarcerated in the previous six months. 

The pattern of Aboriginal youth being incarcerated at a higher rate was even addressed at last Wednesday's Vancouver Quadra elections event. 

According to Joyce Murray, who's running for re-election as the Liberal candidate, the Liberals plan to spend $2.6 billion on "bridging the gap" to help Aboriginal youth complete their high school education.

 "In B.C., there are more aboriginal people that go to jail than graduate high school on reserves," said Murray. "It is a tragedy of lost opportunity and lost fairness." 

Despite limitations in explanation, DeBeck said these studies are important in order to look at this issue more closely, begin untangling why the discrepancies exist in the first place and then have policy interventions to reduce them.

When DeBeck was asked what she hoped people would take away from the study, she said she would like it to change the context in which people look at the health outcomes of others. 

“What I hope that it does is bring attention to how lots of the health impacts we are seeing in the real world are often influenced by larger social and structural pressures and factors," she said. She also noted that she would encourage people "to not look at ... certain differences in health outcomes as just a result of people’s individual behaviour, but seeing that that behaviour is shaped by the environment and the laws."