800 words; 4 minutes to read
This blog has had an emphasis on reporting Canadian work on criminal justice issues. Because of the domination of our media – whether news, entertainment or social media – by the United States, many Canadians know more about the American system than our own. Yet Canada’s criminal justice system is different in many important, indeed fundamental, ways. The strategies promoted in the United States are not always appropriate for improvement in our system.
Canadian organizations and researchers do excellent work in this field, and have provided the foundation for our nearly 150 posts so far. However it isn’t always easy to find Canadian work, for several reasons.
Canadian research limited
Work on criminal justice in Canada comes from several different sources – official data and reports provided by governments, work done by non-profit organizations, research done by academics primarily in universities, and work done by activists in the community. These four sectors are quite separate from each other and have very different ways of working. Government bodies, for example, often release data quietly and with little or no comment or analysis. The annual reports of the Correctional Investigator are a good example. We also use government data that often get little or no analysis – for example Statistics Canada publications.
Unfortunately, overall data on criminal justice in Canada from government are limited and weak compared to many other countries. Partly this is because jurisdiction is split between the federal and provincial governments, which creates all kinds of problems because different provinces use different definitions or may not count or report key facts at all. Also, the federal government has, with a few exceptions (such as the work of Karl Hanson) very little research capacity in this field whereas in many other fields it is a major provider of national data and research. In general, provincial governments in Canada do little or no research in criminal justice – or, for that matter, in most other fields of public policy.
Academics often produced work primarily for their peers, which means that their articles and analyses typically appear in academic journals, and often in academic language, making them much less accessible to other audiences. Also, academic work related to criminal justice is split among social scientists, especially criminologists, psychologists, and law professors. These groups have very different ways of thinking about issues, and quite different research traditions. They also tend to write in different journals and go to different conferences, so their work does not always connect as well as it might.
Fortunately Canada has some wonderful academics who work hard to make their work more public, even though they may get little or no credit for this within the academic world. We have featured the work of many of them in previous posts, including Justin Pichè and his team at The University of Ottawa, Lisa Kerr at Queen’s University, Adelina Iftene at Dalhousie University, Rosemary Ricciardelli at Memorial University, Diane Crocker at St. Mary’s University, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah at University of Toronto, and Marie-Yves Sylvestre (University of Ottawa). We have also used work by several Canadian graduate students, from one of our earliest posts to the most recent.
Non-profit organizations and community activists
There are quite a few non-profit organizations (often called NGOs) in criminal justice in Canada but they are almost all small and poor, often running on the efforts of volunteers. Whereas in some areas (think climate change or health care) non profit organizations are major sources of analysis, in criminal justice only a handful of Canadian NGOs have any research capacity at all. However they sometimes do issue important reports and analysis, such as those by John Howard Ontario or the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers). Or they support important work in areas such as restorative justice.
Criminal justice does have the advantage of a very vigorous and diverse body of community activists pressing for change. This category includes a wide range of people and groups – from most of the NGOs in the field (such as John Howard Canada and its provincial and local counterparts), but also organizations with other interests, such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association or organizations representing minority communities negatively affected by the system such as Aboriginal Legal Services. Activists also include individuals (such as Robyn Maynard or Paula Mallea), some people in political roles (e.g. Kim Pate), criminal lawyers and people who have been through the system. Activists also supply a great deal of excellent commentary on criminal justice found in other media.
We are grateful to all those working in this field whose goal is to create a system that is more strongly based on the evidence – one that is fairer, less punitive, and that puts overall human welfare first. In a future post we’ll discuss how we might get more impact from all this work.