900 words; 4 minutes to read
Summary: Ben Perrin, law professor and former advisor to the Harper government, makes a compelling argument for a dramatic change in our approach to criminal justice.
‘Indictment’, by Benjamin Perrin. University of Toronto Press, 2023.
A dozen years ago Ben Perrin was a key adviser to the Harper government on criminal justice policy, and was integrally involved with that government’s ‘tough on crime’ approach that led to dozens of laws with tougher sentences, and the like. (Many of these measures were later struck down by the courts.)
Years later, as a law professor at the University of British Columbia, Perrin got a letter from a federal prisoner. Unlike most such letters that he received, this one didn’t ask him for anything, just to hear the writer’s story. Intrigued and saddened by the story, Perrin began to investigate further the realities of Canada’s prisons and the criminal justice system.
The result of that investigation is Perrin’s book, Indictment, which completely repudiates the ideas he advocated for the Conservatives. In the book, and in podcasts and other public venues he argues strongly that Canada’s approach to criminal justice is wrong – ineffective, expensive and creating more harm than good. He is now a leading exponent for what he calls a transformative view of criminal justice, which focuses on addressing the main reasons behind crime rather than seeing more and harsher punishment as any kind of answer.
A different view of crime
Perrin argues, supported by much evidence, that a great deal of criminal behaviour, and other social ills, stem from a few main sources: trauma, substance abuse, mental health problems, and racism. The vast majority of people we criminalize, arrest and incarcerate are themselves victims, something that does not get enough attention because the criminal justice system only recognizes certain kinds of victims.
Disastrously, the way we treat people with these issues in the ‘justice’ system often makes their situations worse, leading to more problems and more crime.
‘The traumas of incarceration are vast. They include often harsh and over-crowded conditions of confinement, separation from family and friends, experiencing and witnessing violence by guards and between inmates, death threats, gang rivalries, racism, reprisals, segregation, being under surveillance, drug withdrawal and overdose deaths for those with substance use disorders, limited access and denial of proper medical care, and countless other forms of violence and abuse’
Trauma as a key factor
In a series of chapters Perrin examines the evidence on each of these issues interspersed with stories of individuals that give reality to the data. This combination of evidence and individual stories is well done and very effective. As Perrin shows, tougher policies do not lead to less crime but they do lead to more blighted lives for more people. To mention only a few of many compelling facts in the book:
… almost one in five people (18 per cent) who died in BC of a fatal overdose had been released from provincial custody within the previous thirty days. In Alberta, 50 per cent of fatal overdoses since 2017 were people who had spent time in a provincial correctional facility within the previous two years
Over two-thirds (68 per cent) of the 555 people identified in a CBC investigative report who were killed during encounters with police between 2000 and 2020 had mental health and/or substance use issues
…‘while Indigenous youth are 8 per cent of the population, 50 per cent of admissions to youth custody were Indigenous teenagers (47 per cent for Indigenous males and 60 per cent for Indigenous females).
‘After an average of 14 years post release, most individuals were underemployed with a median income of $0. Of those who reported employment, the average reported income was $14,000, according to an analysis by Public Safety Canada. This figure falls far below the country’s official poverty line, yet people with criminal records are not even mentioned in major reports by the National Advisory Council on Poverty.’
Alternatives to punishment
Instead of our current punitive approach, Perrin argues for something very different. Literally every encounter people have with the criminal justice system, whatever their role or involvement, needs to be informed by a compassionate understanding of trauma. The stakes are high… when a trauma-informed approach is lacking by victim services, police, lawyers, judges, courthouse staff, corrections officers, parole officers, community corrections, and other justice system practitioners, we witness greater harm, worse outcomes, and even the tragic loss of life.
The billions we spend policing and arresting people, trying and jailing them could be used to create stronger local communities and better services for people in need, with much better results. The book provides a number of examples of such programs in Canada.
Whether and how much this could actually happen given the politics of crime in Canada and elsewhere is not so clear. We have much evidence that exploiting people’s fear and anger over crime is a potent political strategy. Compassion and restorative justice appeal to our better natures, but it’s not clear that they generate many votes.
Still, social change only comes from the determined efforts of people, sustained over years. In criminal justice the evidence points clearly to the kind approach Perrin describes. Many people know this and the arguments in this book have been made many times before. The question is whether enough effort will yield a different and better set of policies. This book and the other work its author is doing to promote these ideas can be an important part of that effort.