How do you reform Canada's criminal justice system? Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her provincial and territorial counterparts held an urgent meeting on April 28 to discuss "priority responses to further reduce delays in the criminal justice system."
There was scant information available to the public about the meeting. It appears, however, that there was no agreement on any substantive solutions. All we know is that several key areas face some kind of revision. Mandatory minimums, the bail process, the reclassification of offences and the administration of justice all seem to be on the table. Sadly, the reckless elimination of preliminary inquiries is also still an option.
Canada's Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Feb, 22, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
The ministers have gone so far, it seems, to label their efforts as "transformational" -- at least that is how their objectives are described in the Canadian Intergovernmental Secretariat News Release.
Indeed, depending on what is proposed, many of the prospective changes are necessary.
Necessary, but ultimately inadequate. Necessary but insufficient in resolving the inefficiency, the delays and the inhumanity of our criminal justice system. Necessary, but not "transformational."
That is because what our criminal justice system needs is not mere fixes that further entrench the status quo and the adversarial, punishment-oriented and individualistic process we have now, but true transformational change. We need transformational change that will not only dramatically reduce delays and backlogs in our criminal justice system, but will revolutionize it to make it more meaningful to both victims and offenders.
(Photo: Tom Merton via Getty Images)
The most imperative of these transformative options is the mainstream implementation of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a process that brings together (in appropriate cases) the offender, the victim and their supporters with highly trained and professional facilitators for one or more meetings, usually conducted in a circle. During these encounters, the victims tell their story, describe how the offence impacted them and seek answers from the offender. In turn, the offender listens, and relates his or her own story. The focus is on "why" rather than on "who," and on healing rather than on punishment. The group often works together to find a resolution, not a punishment.
By and large, restorative justice works. There is plenty of proof, including in Public Safety Canada's own records, that restorative justice is a better alternative to our system. It helps victims recover more quickly from post-traumatic stress disorder. It sometimes results in collaboration between the offender, the victim and the connected community to assist both the offender and the victim move forward. It holds offenders accountable and gives them a better chance at moving in a more positive direction.
And restorative justice seems to reduce recidivism. This is all in stark contrast to the impact of our current criminal justice system: costly, dehumanizing and generally ineffectual in rehabilitation, reintegration, and in reducing recidivism.
(Photo: Getty Stock)
Rather than have accused persons (and victims) go through a harsh, degrading and impersonal court process and face a punitive, overly individualistic response, we should bring both willing accused and willing victims into the restorative justice process at the earliest possible stage. We should replace our adversarial, punishment-oriented system with restorative justice -- and not simply at the sentencing stage, which is where the dearth of our restorative justice activity lies now.
While replacing our court process with a restorative process would be transformative and revolutionary for our western notion of justice, restorative justice, itself, is not revolutionary. It has its roots in many Indigenous communities. It has been tried, in one form or another, in other jurisdictions, from England to New Zealand (where restorative justice has replaced the adversarial system for youth since 1989), and on a smaller, more timid scale across various parts of Canada, as a part of the sentencing process.
More judges, more Crown attorneys, eliminating preliminary inquiries... they are all diversions.
Other solutions, such as reducing the number of charges laid and the number of cases that wind their way through the courts, eliminating solitary confinement, and keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system are essential and will also significantly make the criminal justice system more just, more efficient and less costly. Yet none of these appear to have formed part of the discussion of our ministers of justice last Friday. Ultimately, no other "fix" will be as transformational as restorative justice.
Restorative justice is such a meaningful response to our criminal justice woes that any other solution pales in comparison. More judges, more Crown attorneys, eliminating preliminary inquiries... they are all diversions. They are Band-Aid solutions implemented when we (and our elected officials in particular) lack the will to confront the foundational challenges to our notion of justice and the courage to implement transformational change.
Our ministers of justice will be looking for fixes to our broken justice system. Instead, they should focus on creating a new one. A truly just justice system.
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Norway has one of the lowest re-conviction rates in Europe, at 20%, and 71 prisoners for each 100,000 population, roughly half the UK total. Dubbed the "world's most human prison system" it operates on the principle that custodial sentences restrict the freedom of movement only - and not prisoners' other rights. And there's an intense focus on rehabilitation. "Progression through a sentence should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community," the government says. One prison, Halgen in the north of the country, has attracted international media attention due to its design - likened to university halls by some media - as well as its ability to serve the prison system's priorities. At Halgen Prison, prisoners: are able to cook meals for themselves have access to ensuite facilities can work in retail stores and other jobs earn points to spend on site have access to scenic running routes within landscaped, secure grounds have large windows with plenty of natural light However, Norway's system became so overcrowded last year it sent 300 prisoners to the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has just 69 prisoners per 100,000 population and has enough capacity in its prisons to accommodate criminals from other countries. Routines exist to rehabilitate "persistent offenders", and those who are motivated can develop skills related to: self care and hygiene; labour; education; spending of leisure time; financial administration; unsupervised settling; and social attitude However, while it pursues many policies aimed at rehabilitation of inmates, some of these have been severely curtailed in recent years. Single-use cells are no longer mandatory, while the amount of hours devoted to activities each week reduced still further. Nonetheless in 2013, it was reported that declining crime rates in the Netherlands meant that although the country has the capacity for 14,000 prisoners, there were only 12,000 detainees.
Denmark has a reconviction rate of 29% -- as opposed to England & Wales' 49% -- and it has 61 prisoners per 100,000 citizens - far fewer than the UK. The number of women guards in Danish prisons has been noted as having a calming effect on majority male inmates. Women are more likely to reduce tensions, and prisoners are more likely to make an effort to talk to them - more so than with their male counterparts. Annette Esdorf, deputy director general of the prison and probation service in Denmark, explained the philosophy to the BBC: "We make an effort to keep crime down by treating the prisoners in the best way. We have a rather humane regime, not because of the prisoners, but because we think it works better this way. "Our prison regime is based on normalisation, a principle of openness and responsibility, because we think it's the best way of avoiding reconviction."
Sweden has a remarkably low prison population rate at just 55 per 100,000 citizens. "Sweden's remarkable prison system has done what the U.S. won't even consider," Mic.com reported last year, stating, "prisons in Nordic countries are designed to treat (prisoners) as people with psychosocial needs that are to be carefully attended to." It is this philosophy which guides Sweden's correctional system. Director-general Nils Öberg told the Guardian: "It has to do with whether you decide to use prison as your first option or as a last resort, and what you want your probation system to achieve. "Some people have to be incarcerated, but it has to be a goal to get them back out into society in better shape than they were when they came in." Rather than "static security" roles, guards in Swedish prisons adopt "dynamic security" - fostering interrelationships between staff and inmates for the benefit of rehabilitation and safety.
Unlike many prisons across the world, Germany has placed an emphasis on pleasing decoration and home comforts - even those as simple as ceramic toilets and wash basins, opposed to the expected stainless steel. It has roughly half the prison population of the UK, at 76 inmates per 100,000 citizens. On a visit to a German prison alongside US justice officials, Vice News found: "Most prisoners have knives and forks in their cells. Though the prisoners cannot access the internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone—even the media." While reconviction rates are around 48%, special efforts are made to reintroduce offenders into society - aided by German culture.
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