The 2018 annual conference of the Public Health Association of B.C. had a focus on violence prevention. One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Irvin Waller, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa and Canada’s leading expert on violence prevention.
He shared the key findings of a 2016 research report from Public Safety Canada called Tyler’s Story. It is the fictionalized story of life to the age of 30 of “a prototypical adolescent offender in Canada,” highlighting “the most common risk factors that affect Canadian youth who become involved in crime.”
The report notes that “the majority of Canadians engage in some form of delinquent behaviour during adolescence,” but “most people eventually outgrow these behaviours.” However, more than 94,000 young people aged 12 to 17 years old — about four per cent of the Canadian youth population — were accused of a Criminal Code violation in 2014.
Of course, not all of them go on to a life of crime, but for those who do, it is a damaging and expensive experience, not only for Tyler, but for all the other people whose lives he touched and who were harmed by his actions.
It is an important story for those of us interested in improving the health of the population, because the story also estimated both the economic costs to society and, more important still, the potential inteventions that might have changed his life course for the better, and the potential savings.
Tyler did not get a great start in life. He was born to a young high school dropout and his father had a history of property crimes. Before the age of two, Tyler had come to the attention of the child welfare agency as his mother struggled to raise him largely on her own. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had behavioural problems which meant he could not attend daycare, but had to stay with a neighbour or at home with his father — now out of jail.
However, his father was abusive, and before the age of five, Tyler was in foster care, and over the next five years had three foster homes, and thus three changes of school. He became aggressive and disruptive, was diagnosed with ADHD and given medication, and moved to a fourth foster home. A victim of teasing at school, he became violent and ultimately was suspended for fighting.
In high school, where he continued to be disruptive and was often suspended, Tyler hung out with a bad crowd and before long they were stealing to buy cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. He was caught, of course, and in Grade 10 received his first youth sentence — probation. While still 16 he dropped out of school, and before too long, his aggressive behaviour ended in an assault charge and landed him a six-month sentence in a secure youth custody facility.
There he partnered up with a drug dealer, eventually was caught dealing cocaine and, now 18, was sentenced to an adult jail term. The pattern of assaults and drug dealing and jail continued, and by age 30, Tyler had spent 10 years of his life in custody.
And the cost of all this? The report’s authors estimate the costs to society at $1.4 million, largely from the child protection and justice system, but also costs for medical care for victims and for property damage.
This does not include the stress and mental pain and suffering endured by his victims, nor does it include the health and social harm arising from his drug dealing. And this is just for one person’s action, never mind the hundreds, perhaps thousands more who are the larger population of which Tyler is a representative.
But as noted, the report also points to three proven evidence-based interventions that, had they been available and implemented, might have diverted Tyler to a different path, preventing much of this harm.
The first of these, if implemented at age six to 10, might have saved society almost $1.2 million, not to mention the avoided mental and social harm, while the latest, at age 15 to 17, could still have saved almost $900,000.
More about this next week, along with ideas for even earlier interventions that might help change Tyler’s story.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.