Post # 232

700 words; 3 minutes to read

Summary: Many developments in criminal justice policy in Canada in 2023 were disappointing and conflict with the evidence.

2023 has been a difficult year in many ways, all around the world.  We face wars and other conflicts with large loss of life and destruction in various parts of the world – and distressingly many of these seem to be ignored.  There seems to be a rise in populism and the expression of the darker emotions – anger, fear, hatred.  Politics feels more conflictual and less reasonable.

It is also true that we cannot trust our immediate impressions,  Humans are wired to focus on dangers and threats, not positive developments, so we are inclined to pessimism.  And we are very much inclined to see the short-term not the long term.  We are quick to generalize from a small number of cases, especially if the generalization is towards danger and fear.  Our predictions about the future are almost always wrong, and often spectacularly so.  But it’s still hard to end 2023 on a note of optimism.

Not a good year for criminal justice

It was not a good year for criminal justice work in Canada.  As this blog has tried to emphasize, we have a lot of good evidence in this field as to what is happening, what works, and, just as importantly, what does not work.  Sadly, debate on criminal justice continues to focus on and respond to emotion and prejudice rather than evidence.

One example: the federal government’s bill, evidently strictly a response to political pressure and incessant media stories, putting further restrictions on bail.  This law passed despite abundant evidence, and 3 Supreme Court rulings that in Canada bail is withheld far too often on flimsy grounds. Not one expert in Canada supported this measure yet it was the single most important criminal justice story this year.

Another example is the federal government’s response to a Supreme Court ruling on the sex offender registry.   Despite abundant evidence that the registry is essentially useless in reducing or solving crimes and really serves only a punitive purpose, the government did not use the opportunity to reduce its scope or its punitive nature.  While often claiming to be ‘evidence-based’, this government (like most) conveniently ignores the evidence when it suits them to do so.

Wasting opportunities to do something positive

Then the federal government finally released its implementation plan for the Framework to Reduce Recidivism.  This is a plan with no resources that mostly recycles existing efforts, which we already know to be inadequate.  Many community organizations, including the John Howard Society, had hoped that this framework might lead to more effort to use community resources instead of punitive approaches, but there’s little here to make anyone cheerful.

Meanwhile, Senator Kim Pate’s bill to expunge criminal records, an important, inexpensive and effective measure, has not been supported by the government and will not pass.

While much of this post focuses on federal actions, the situation in provincial jails is worse with even less positive action. And provincial premiers led the charge in demanding bail restrictions while they continue to imprison thousands of people not convicted of any crime.

Ignoring the evidence

Some other examples of problems that are just not being addressed include the increasing over-representation of Aboriginal people in our criminal justice system, and their harsher treatment within it, despite many promises over the years to improve the situation.  Or yet another report on how Black people are stopped arbitrarily by police at much higher rates than white people. Or how conditions in our jails and prisons remain terrible despite, again, many promises to do better.

Why is the evidence on these issues not more persuasive?  That’s a big question having to do with the way the human mind works, the nature of our political processes, the constant media focus on crime, the rise of social media – and also with the way that evidence is produced and disseminated in Canada.

Fortunately we do have examples where evidence has eventually led to important changes in public policy – restrictions on smoking, reducing the corporal punishment of children, the importance of exercise and diet, the use of seatbelts in cars, efforts to improve human rights of various kinds.  It takes sustained effort by many groups over a long time.

This blog always stands for the value and importance of evidence.  We hope we have helped in that regard over the last 6 years, and plan to continue to do so in 2024.

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