Going to prison. Why?

“A Disparate Impact”, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s “Second interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service” was published within the past week. The reactions from municipal and community leaders are as we would expect. The calls for reform and our politician’s pledge to seriously consider the reports “next steps” are as we would expect, too.

However, what will come of this report is in question. Only community vigilance can succeed in preventing influential forces from appearing compliant to public concerns while preserving the status quo. There cannot be real reform without input from impacted neighbourhoods, and written concessions from stakeholders. While this issue is on the table, awaiting its fate, we move on from where we were last time.

According to Jonathan Rudin, program director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, “If we ran a program that failed as much as the criminal justice system, we would not be funded. We would not be able to operate. We just keep throwing money at it and keep relying on it even though it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.”

Added human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan, “The system is not structured to rehabilitate. We need to stop relying on this falsity. It helps us feel more comfortable with what is a really brutal system.”

If calls to defund the police were answered it would mean far fewer people in custody. This in turn has some people demanding we defund the jail and prison system, too. Ontario’s jail population was reduced by 30% by mid-June due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and is an example of what is possible. “These are people who, under the logic of the system as it was, shouldn’t have been behind bars anyway,” said Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

At the federal level, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees Correctional Service of Canada, asked both CSC and the Parole Board of Canada in early March to consider releasing low-risk offenders due to the threat of COVID-19. What is telling is that Minister Blair, who is after all supposed to be in charge, did not do more than politely ask the agencies to “consider” early releases. As a result, according to Douglas Quan in the Toronto Star on August 5, “there was no increase in the number of prisoners released during the first three months of the pandemic compared to a year earlier In fact, there were slightly fewer inmates released.”

Does that say that Correctional Service of Canada would prefer to hang onto its assets?

Now, more than half of sentences handed down by adult courts in Canada are for less than one month, 20 per cent are for more than six months, and only 3.6 per cent carry judgements of more than two years. Jonathan Rudin argues putting people in jail for 30 days because, “Oh, they’ll learn a lesson,” does more harm to the community than would funds redirected to social services and supports. “We’re just being cruel for the sake of being cruel,” he says. And, of course, minorities are more negatively affected by how the system operates than whites, exacerbating the already unacceptable social norms.

Our criminal justice system continues to put people in jails and prisons, knowing they don’t work for the good of us all. Yes, there are circumstances where some people need to be separated from the community, but better jails and prisons are not what the protesters in the streets want. The call is for an entirely different approach.

Can we really fight City Hall? Next…….

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