01/15/2016 03:59 EST | Updated 01/15/2017 05:12 EST

Upstream Justice: A Look At The Social Causes Of Crime

An interview with Clive Weighill - Saskatoon Police Chief and President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police


Ryan Meili: Long before I had a chance to meet you, I quoted you in A Healthy Society. You said we need to get tough on poverty, poor housing, racism, and the social issues that lead us down the road to crime.

Clive Weighill: Some politicians talk about getting tough on crime. I'm saying you don't just want to get tough on crime, you have to get tough on the issues of poverty, poor housing, disadvantage. People are products of their environment, and if we can't solve those social issues, we're not going to solve the big picture in the end. I firmly believe that we have to work on poverty.

The health region did a great study on health disparity in Saskatoon that really fleshed it out, proving that when people are living below the low income mark, compared to people that live in a very affluent environment, how many more people get into drugs, how many more people are committing suicide. All of these issues are so much different when people are living in poverty than mainstream Canada.

RM: We often talk about those issues in the health world as the social determinants of health -- income, education, housing -- the things that make the biggest difference in whether we'll be ill or well.

CW: They're the social determinants of crime as well. It's not hard to see across the prairie provinces -- and this is not casting any blame, we have to be very careful when we talk about this -- but with an Aboriginal population that's so marginalized, we're seeing the same things are happening because you have a huge population that's really at a disadvantage.

It leads to young men wanting to be involved in gangs because it gives them a place where they can feel that they have a bit of power, where they fit in, where they've got some kind of a future, something they don't feel they have in general life.

RM: I'm also wondering about the other way around, the health impacts of being involved in the justice system. Once somebody has been incarcerated or charged, what do you see in terms of that affecting the trajectory of their life, whether it's further involvement in crime or just their health?

"If we can't fix that social circumstance we're not going to fix the systemic problem, so we'll still be investigating missing and murdered women."

CW: A large majority that are in penal institutions are suffering from some type of mental illness, substance abuse issues -- that's part of what's got them to where they are. My fear is that when people are incarcerated, if they're on remand they're not getting any help for their issues because they're just on remand.

If they are sentenced the programming still isn't sufficient to help anybody get over substance abuse or mental health issues. They're certainly not preparing people for that transition from when they are incarcerated to get them back into society. You can lock somebody up, put them away for ten years, but if you don't give them help and you put them right back into the same environment they came from, you're going to replicate the problem you had in the first place.

It's hard to get the understanding of short mandates for government to look long-term at how to fix some of these issues, because they're looking at a four-year term. They have to convince the taxpayers of what they're doing. We're dealing with people -- people's feelings, people's mental health, people's status -- this is not a four-year fix.

Look at the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The [former] prime minister and his party would say that this is a crime issue. But it's a systemic issue that's causing this -- it's young women that are placed in vulnerable situations because of their social circumstances. If we can't fix that social circumstance we're not going to fix the systemic problem, so we'll still be investigating missing and murdered women.

RM: There's something of a parallel between how we address issues of crime and justice, and how we address health issues, putting most of our money into the end stages: doctors and hospitals, prisons and police. How do we change that? How do we move upstream from that approach, and start to use what we've learned in health and justice to address the source causes?

CW: You do what you get measured on. What do health regions get measured on? They get measured on wait times in the hospital, in emergency rooms. They don't get measured specifically on what they're doing with mental health. We're not putting enough people into mental health and addictions support, problems that, if addressed, could curtail a lot of the problems that we're seeing in society. So my hope would be that health starts to spend its money in this way.

We could have a family come in and say, "our son's schizophrenic, he hasn't been on his pills." We have to get a Mental Health Act warrant issued, we arrest him, we take him to emergency, we wait five or six hours, finally a psychiatrist comes to see him, says the guy's OK as long as you put him back on his meds. Out he goes again, and five days later the parents are back on our door again.

RM: We talk about revolving-door prisons -- there are revolving door emergency rooms too, and psych wards. And it's often the same people going through all of them.

CW: Look at the United Way's 'Plan to End Homelessness'. When you get people some proper housing and take care of them properly, you see how many fewer times they have interactions with the police, how many fewer trips to emergency, how many fewer ambulance rides. All of these things are very expensive. If you spend the money up front you eliminate a lot of big costs.

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