03/28/2013 03:50 EDT | Updated 05/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Perry Kendall: Safe Streets Act Threatens BC First Nations Progress


VANCOUVER - Federal tough-on-crime legislation puts vulnerable First Nations' communities at risk and could be exacerbating a vicious cycle of poverty, crime and illness, warns a new report from British Columbia's top health official.

Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall is concerned the Conservative government's "Safe Streets and Communities Act" will lead to a glut in the prison system, and those with mental health issues, addictions and health problems won't be able to get the help they need.

Kendall said unless extreme measures are taken immediately to revoke or amend the act, B.C. will lose two decades of progress when it comes to the health and rehabilitation of First Nations and young offenders in the criminal justice system.

His 50-page special report entitled "Health, Crime, and Doing Time" was released in Vancouver on Thursday and makes nine recommendations to mitigate some of the most harmful potential outcomes of a system that seeks to put more people in jail.

"The cycle of poor health and crime can be difficult to escape and to do so requires ... a focus on prevention and rehabilitation rather than increased incarceration," the report stated.

Prisoners are particularly vulnerable to poor health — those incarcerated are 30 per cent more likely to get hepatitis C than the general population, while the risk of HIV-AIDS is increased between 7 and 10 per cent.

While Kendall has not discussed the contents or recommendations of the new report with the federal government, he said its findings won't likely come as a surprise to the Conservatives.

Some of the recommendations include revoking or amending the act, increasing collaboration with First Nations, implementing support groups for at-risk populations, monitoring the overall effects of the act on vulnerable communities, and focusing on developments for education, the economy, aboriginal cultural and employment.

Reasons for high rates of First Nations incarceration are complex, Kendall's report stated. Those of Aboriginal descent are more likely to live in extreme poverty, have unstable housing and family situations, be unemployed and be less educated.

They can also have mental health issues, drug and alcohol addictions, or be victims of abuse and racism — including historical hardships at the hands of residential schools.

Incarceration levels among Aboriginal Peoples are "disturbing" — particularly among women and young people, Kendall stated in his report.

He said the move towards punishing offenders rather than rehabilitating them will only make things worse.

While First Nations people make up five per cent of the province's total population, they currently represent more than a quarter of those admitted to B.C. prisons, according to Canadian census data.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo joined Kendall in condemning the legislation, saying First Nations people are already massively over-represented in the prison system.

His group has been lobbying the federal government to address disproportionate representation of First Nations offenders in prison for years, Atleo said.

"We know that, in many parts of the country, we have higher rates of incarceration than graduation," Atleo said of First Nations communities.

He welcomed the health officer's report as further proof the problem needs a holistic approach.

Given royal assent a year ago, the act expanded mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, puts deterrence ahead of rehabilitation in sentencing, and effectively eliminated the requirement of judges to consider the unique circumstances of First Nations offenders.

The changes were widely criticized by lawyers, criminologists and First Nations leaders who argued they would lead to revolving-door prisons.

Paul Pearson, co-chair with the criminal justice section of the Canadian Bar Association, called the act "broad reaching and very rushed."

In an interview, Pearson said imposing minimum sentences takes away a judge's ability to assess the unique conditions such as mental health issues, addiction, abuse before he or she makes a decision.

Judges could already "hammer" criminals with Canada's criminal laws, Pearson said, but often sought a more rehabilitative approach.

"Minimum sentences do not work," he said. "The Americans have learned that, they're getting away from them."

Pearson said the government should focus on dealing with homelessness, funding in depressed communities, and treating those with mental health problems — because at the end of the day, even with mandatory minimum sentences, offenders will be back on the streets.

"If you ask the police, they will tell you the single greatest threat to public safety is not Lex-Luther-type evil people who are committing crimes," he said. "It's mentally-disordered individuals who have a drug addiction, who are not getting the assistance and treatment they need."

"You put someone in jail who is not, at their core, a hardened criminal, they will become a hardened criminal in the jail."

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