SHOULD JUDGES, PROSECUTORS BE REQUIRED TO VISIT PRISONS AND JAILS?
The Toronto Star’s Jacques Gallant, legal affairs reporter, posed this question in the paper’s December 23rd edition last year.
“Prosecutors routinely recommend jail time for offenders and then judges lock them up – but what do they really know about the places they’re sending people?” is how Mr. Gallant opened.
Daniel Brown, vice president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association added that even defence lawyers visiting clients in jail and get just a glimpse “can’t really understand what it’s like to lose your liberty entirely, the indignity, the inhumanity of it.” Mr. Brown added, “I just think it’s one of those things that if judges understood better or Crown attorneys understood better, they would think twice before they insisted on jail for some offenses, or insisted on a lengthy jail sentence.”
Ontario provincial jails, which hold inmates serving shorter sentences of less than two years, also house a “remand population” of men and women awaiting disposition of their charges and they can account for up to 70% of people in custody. Research into Ontario jails also shows that Indigenous and racial minorities are over-represented in a system which has come under increasing judicial criticism as being cruel and harsh.
Lisa Kerr, a Queen’s University law professor involved with prison research thinks federal prison and provincial jail visits by Crown attorneys and judges would be a could thing, but cautions that conditions inside facilities change with regularity and vary from one institution to another. Courts don’t control where a convicted person will be sent or where they might be transferred during their sentence. She suggests that Crown attorneys be mandated to file evidence about prison conditions and programs when making submissions on sentencing.
There’s already a voluntary program in parts of Canada where mainly newly appointed judges visit provincial jails and federal prisons, Indigenous healing centres, attend a parole hearing and speak with experts, inmates and parolees. But, this is limited in numbers, is voluntary, includes only judges, and is not offered on a national scale.
Senator Kim Pate, former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and a member of the Senate of Canada’s Human Rights Committee, is committed to major custodial reforms and believes that parliamentarians who pass the laws that judges enforce should also be required to visit these same facilities. “Ultimately,” she says, “what a number of us want to work on is creating an environment where there are fewer people who end up marginalized and victimized as well as criminalized.”
So, if this proposal to educate our judges and court officers to better understand how the decisions they make will impact the lives of the people who pass in front them were to become practice, we could expect our prison industry to also benefit from constructive scrutiny as a result.
Now, how about we take yet another step to illuminate how our courts, our justice system works for our well-being?
Let’s require every Canadian citizen, exemptions allowed, to spend at least one half a day in a courtroom once a year. Management of the program would not be difficult. Court clerks would distribute personalized certifications when the court rose for lunch and at the end of the day. The documentation would be submitted with income tax returns to avoid a financial penalty.
We all have a part to play.