Last month, it was my privilege to attend a panel discussion organized by SFU Public Square featuring Howard Sapers, the current Correctional Investigator of Canada. The topic followed along the lines of his latest report which testified to our current justice system being riddled with mental health problems and addiction.
I won’t run through the entirety of his findings since the broadcast of the talk was recorded on video but some of the points he raised were dismaying. The lack of competent staff to assist individuals suffering from mental health issues along with the sheer numbers being thrown out made me question whether our federally-regulated prisons can, in any shape or form, be considered fit for habitation. The inadequate support after release was also found to be insufficient and it quickly prompted memories of my days volunteering with the John Howard Society last year. We’ve reached the root of the problem, folks.
The topic of co-occurring disorders was also breached by Mae Burrows from Grief to Action, an agency organized by the parents of individuals suffering from addictions. She emphasized the importance of humanizing people with addictions and dispelling the stigma that is so rampant in society. One of the most heart-rending moments of the dialogue involved a couple in the audience who recounted the story of their incarcerated son. He was denied medical attention and subjugated to persisting neglect after suffering from a mental break during which he sustained an injury. It was also particularly astonishing to me that he had been penalized for refusing methadone (he wanted to quit his heroin addiction without resorting to other opioids), being told that his refusal would be considered ‘bad behaviour’. The parents, holding each others’ hands, grieving for their son’s condition served as a tragic example. Their situation epitomized the treatment that our prisoners are being subjected to by a regulating body that seemingly doesn’t have much interest in maintaining their well-being.
A link to a relevant section within Sapers’ current annual report can be found here and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to hear what was being said that night:
The reason this blog has been blessed with the privilege of sustaining two posts in their entirety within a week is because I’m extremely enthusiastic about having the marvelous opportunity to visit the Provincial Court of British Columbia and Downtown Community Court with some fellow volunteers and staff of the John Howard Society of British Columbia. I arrived early in the morning which allowed me to spend some time loitering around Gastown (which I haven’t seen since Christmas)- it’s my favourite part of Vancouver, I had to mention it. I arrived at the courthouse and an introduction was provided by a representative of the Justice Education Society who gave us a quick rundown of the criminal justice system in the province (echoes of my criminology days) and the different types of cases heard in the provincial court, community court and drug treatment court respectively. The Downtown Community Court
At its core, the community court is about partnership and problem solving. It’s about creating new relationships, both within the justice system and with health and social services, community organizations, area residents, merchants, faith communities and schools… The community court is about testing new ways to reduce crime and improve public safety. It deals with offenders more quickly through a more co-ordinated and informed response.
This court is located on the backside of the provincial court, although through a separate entrance. There is definitely an advantage to being located so close to Main Street and I couldn’t help but notice the symbolic significance of this layout- it serves as an informal, backdoor way of dealing with repeat offenders who are wrought with problematic histories which often include mental illness and drug addiction. As our JES representative pressed, many of these individuals ended up being charged for theft of petty items such as cheese- which have a high resale value (reference to the low-cost pizza slice outlets scattered over the downtown core). A justice system that treats them like cookie-cutter criminals would be detrimental to their well-being along with that of the general public especially taking into consideration the systemic problems that are prevalent around the area. Hence, the community court. A somewhat-casual court system that complies with its rules but promotes an understanding, harm-reduction response to such crimes. We were lucky enough to visit while the court was presided by the Honourable Judge Thomas Gove, who initially proposed the creation of the court in Vancouver. Seeing him call up the accused and communicate directly to them was remarkable to see. There’s no doubt that this courtroom maintained a supportive and accessible atmosphere. I cringe at the thought of how an old, mentally ill panhandler would have fared in regular court. While we did notice how ‘disorganized’ the court seemed, we all agreed that it was well suited the area it served where restricted time slots and airtight rules would only result in further unnecessary legal ramifications for an already marginalized population. More information about the process can be found here along with some helpful videos that give you the gist of how the court works. The Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver The drug treatment court is a model that has proved to work miles in helping drug addicted offenders recover effectively (see here). It is used worldwide and I was surprised to learn that it carried the support of the current federal government. This probably the most remarkable thing I’ve heard today, but, as one of the lawyers (who kindly consented to being barraged with our questions) asserted, the science is practically unwavering. The court seemed more of a pep rally than actual proceedings but this shouldn’t be mistaken as being lenient on offenders. Judge Dillon emphasized that rehabilitation and recovery is an immensely demanding process and requires considerable sacrifice (which is monitored by way of frequent drug tests and stringent conditions). The prosecutor determines selection criteria and only a few individuals are permitted into this program which requires weekly court visits and is bolstered by rewards and praise for compliance. Crown counsel and defense collaborate to create a workable action plan for the accused and most of the decisions are made in a pretrial meeting between the counsel, judge and various case workers since hearing the occasional negative feedback could prove to be detrimental to the recovery of the individual who is encouraged to consider the members of the court as allies. The best part of the experience was seeing how, even while sitting in an adversarial system, all the counsel in the drug treatment and community courts seemed to work together to devise practical solutions. Aside from my own observations, more information about this court can be found here. We also managed to sit in on a robbery case and talk to some industrious Native Courtworkers who described the challenges faced by aboriginal offenders and the alternative justice measures that have been put into place in order to take their circumstances into account. I’m a large supporter of restorative justice so this element of the dialogue was very interesting to me- especially when she revealed the existence of a specialized First Nations court (guess who wants to drop by for a visit?) Overall, I was very grateful for the opportunity. It’s quite fascinating to see the things I’ve been reading about put into action. There’s always hope in progressive policy research… and good results too.
We talked about children in the criminal justice system today. I’m a big proponent of restorative justice and that heavily played into my outlook on the topic of discussion.
Additionally, my criminological background has given me certain insight into why crime occurs and the sort of individuals who cause and are victims of crimes. When it comes to juvenile offending, these are just some things that I know to be true…
Youth crime is largely a result of socioeconomic factors
The levels of crime committed by male youth peak in their teenage and early adult years and steadily declines afterwards
Punishment and incarceration are not effective deterrence and, very often, they lead to a cycle of disruption and social exclusion in a child’s life- this is difficult to recover from
Keeping this in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that imprisoning young offenders does nothing for us, nothing for them and nothing for society as a whole. If anything, it traps them and hinders their development. We cannot raise active and law-abiding citizens within the justice system that we have today.
The biggest concern lies within a marginalized population- the poor (usually minority) child who is growing up in a stressful environment with inadequate care. This is the child that suffers the most from arbitrary and damaging judicial decisions and processes.
These concepts are difficult for the public at large to understand. It’s easier to vilify offending children and their parents instead of taking a reconciliatory and restorative approach to these issues.
During the Vancouver riots in 2011 following the loss of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team from the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was a frenzied witch-hunt of sorts that targeted teenagers and young adults for their participation in the riots.
These types of scenarios perpetuate the modern impression of youth as dangerous and immoral. Portraying them as deviants, in this fashion, does nothing but exclude them from mainstream society and alienate them- which, understandably, doesn’t help discourage them from a life of crime.
This is one of the reasons why I was impressed to see CommCRC’s General Comment 10 which emphasized the importance of raising awareness and diminishing the perception that youth are troublemakers and generally harmful towards others. We cannot ask youth to obey the law and, at the same time, demonize them in the social sphere. State, individual and group actions that strive to pursue and fulfill the committee’s recommendations are commendable:
Children who commit offenses are often subject to negative publicity in the media, which contributes to a discriminatory and negative stereotyping of these children and often of children in general. This negative presentation or criminalization of child offenders is often based on misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of the causes of juvenile delinquency, and results regularly in a call for a tougher approach (e.g. zero-tolerance, three strikes and you are out, mandatory sentences, trial in adult courts and other primarily punitive measures). To create a positive environment for a better understanding of the root causes of juvenile delinquency and a rights-based approach to this social problem, the States parties should conduct, promote and/or support educational and other campaigns to raise awareness of the need and the obligation to deal with children alleged of violating the penal law in accordance with the spirit and the letter of CRC. In this regard, the States parties should seek the active and positive involvement of members of parliament, NGOs and the media, and support their efforts in the improvement of the understanding of a rights-based approach to children who have been or are in conflict with the penal law. It is crucial for children, in particular those who have experience with the juvenile justice system, to be involved in these awareness-raising efforts.
If we want our children and youth to stop committing crimes, we need to engage them in public discourse and start propagating a new conception of young people among adults- one that comprehensively identifies and acknowledges the different stages of childhood from a developmental perspective. This is incredibly important if we hope to raise principled citizens who can contribute positively to the community.