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By Peter Small, Contributor

Reprinted with the permission of

A criminal record contributes to more crime

Society’s branding of someone as a criminal becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because offenders seldom get second chances, says Toronto criminal lawyer Jordana Goldlist.

“I have so many clients that have come to me and said, ‘Listen, I want to do different, but I committed this robbery when I was in my late teens, and now I can’t get a job,’” Goldlist, principal of JHG Criminal Law, tells

Members of important professions look down on people with criminal records, which makes it nearly impossible for them to find work in those fields, she says.

“When you start treating someone like a criminal, even if they didn’t do anything wrong, or if they’re dealing with a significant addiction issue, for example, then they start behaving like that,” says Goldlist, who discussed the issue during a wide-ranging TEDx Talk.

Especially a problem for youth

Young people, in particular, start to view themselves as others see them — untrustworthy, irresponsible, and lazy, she says.

“They feel like, ‘What’s the point of following the law? What’s the point of working harder to do things the right way if at the end of the day I’m still looked upon as someone who’s doing things the wrong way?’”

The criminal lifestyle often starts after a youth is arrested for a minor drug offence, Goldlist says. They may be sentenced to probation, an ineffective program that many breach, and end up back in court on charges, she says.

“Once you keep coming back, and everyone’s looking down on you because you’re back before the court, you eventually start looking at yourself as a criminal,” Goldlist says. “You can’t see your way out of it.”

By the time they reach their mid- to late-20s, these young people are rejected by most employers, and can’t support themselves by legal means, she says.

“And I think that’s what’s contributing to some of the blatant violence that we are seeing every single weekend in Toronto,” Goldlist says.

Help instead of blame and shame

People ask why young people are shooting each other in malls and other public places without regard for bystanders, she says.

“It’s because nobody cared to help them when they needed help, and now they just don’t care,” she says. “The system isn’t designed in a way to get them out early enough to change the course of their life,” Goldlist says.

We need more and better after-school programs, drug treatment facilities, and employment initiatives, she says.

“We have to do a better job of intervening earlier with people who first come into contact with the criminal justice system,” Goldlist says.

Just because people made poor choices early in life doesn’t necessarily shut the door on their living a fulfilling, successful adulthood, she says. “Get people working.”

Role of police

Goldlist says she also believes policing needs to change.

Random police stops and searches, where young people are often targeted, leave them with a complete disdain for the law, she says.

Police focus on some young people because they believe they look like criminals, Goldlist says. “What does that mean — I’m wearing baggy pants and a pair of  Jordans?”

The now disbanded Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), in which specialized police teams stopped and documented people not suspected of a crime, may have taken some guns off the street, but at the cost of alienating hundreds of innocent people, she says.

The labelling of young people extends to businesses, schools, and even community housing projects, Goldlist says.

A community housing organization in one city threatened to evict the family of one of her clients because he faced significant charges in another, she says.

“That’s horrific,” Goldlist says. “What’s going to happen once this person is homeless? Do you think they’re now going to start working at a fast-food outlet to try to pay the bills? No. Now they’re going to go and commit another robbery and/or sell drugs, and/or commit home invasions.”

Another barrier they face is the long wait before they can apply for a pardon — five years for a summary offence, and 10 years for an indictable offence, she says, adding these periods should be reduced.

People who have just served a sentence for robbery can’t get a job because of their criminal record, so they sell drugs to pay the bills, Goldlist says. They get caught and convicted again, restarting the clock before they can apply for a pardon.

“It’s really designed to keep people stuck.”

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