700 words; 3 minutes to read.
Most of this post is drawn from an article by Dylan Short in the Edmonton Journal on January 26, 2020.
An Edmonton law group is urging Public Safety Canada to pardon all Indigenous inmates currently being held in custody for non-violent crimes after a report found Indigenous incarceration numbers are continuing to rise across the country.
Dr. Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, released a report outlining Indigenous inmates now make up 30 per cent of the population of federal prisons, an all time high. Of all federally incarcerated women, 42 per cent are Indigenous.
Liberty Law and the Criminal Trial Lawyer Association’s Committee to Reduce Aboriginal Incarceration are reiterating their call for the federal government to mass pardon Indigenous inmates who are not locked away for violent crimes, a tool available in Canada’s criminal code.
“Something radical has to happen because the situation is so radical,” said Bob Aloneissi, a lawyer associated with both groups. “It’s difficult to comprehend why we’re doing the same old, same old when everyone is saying this is a huge problem that has to be addressed.”
Public Safety Canada issued a statement in response to the federal watchdog’s report pointing out changes that the Liberal government has made to the criminal justice system over the past four years.
“Reconciliation remains a crucial priority for our government and we are working tirelessly to renew our relationship with Indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect and cooperation,” said Jordan Crosby, a spokesman for the Minister of Public Affairs.
A $120-million investment to support former Indigenous inmates reintegrate into their community, expanding and opening healing lodges, ending administrative segregation and addressing court delays and streamlining the bail system are all Liberal initiatives aimed at overturning the high rate of Indigenous incarceration, Crosby said.
Aloneissi says it’s not enough.
“There are no programs,” said Aloneissi. “I’m not sure where this federal funding has gone. I’m just not sure where those resources went, but the people on the ground will say there’s nowhere to send individuals.”
Denise Lightning, a lawyer in Maskwacis who also sits on the committee to reduce Aboriginal incarceration, said she supports mass pardons but that there needs to be real action around building supports within the community.
“We have to recognize that it will be a stop-gap measure that will allow us to make changes in the support system, housing, addressing the issues that put people there in the first place. Otherwise we’re just feeding the system,” said Lightning.
“If we do more upfront work supporting families and child welfare before kids hit that age where they’re struggling, then you’re going to stop that pipeline from child welfare to the justice system.”
Lightning said in order to heal from generational traumas affecting the community everyone within the justice system — from judges and the Crown to the defence — need to get on board on adopting new approaches. She wants to see sentencing circles more widely implemented in Alberta where the community can have their say on what a just sentence is for offenders.
“If we don’t do something different the numbers aren’t going to change, they’re going to get worse,” said Lightning.
The issue of over-incarceration of Indigenous people is well known and has been getting worse despite statements from government promising to make improvements. The call for mass release of prisoners is a reasonable measure given what is known about the negative effects of jailing people. It would save large amounts of money, help many people, and have little or no impact on public safety.
However confining the call to so-called non-violent offenses is a problem for at least two reasons. First, more and more offenses have been declared violent through criminal code amendments even though they do would not be understood as violent by most ordinary people. For example, many sex offenses that do not involve any violence are still considered violent under the criminal code.
Second, many people are in jail for violent offenses committed decades ago, while research shows that risk declines steadily with time and age. So many people who no longer represent any real risk are still being held for violent offenses.