600 words; 3 minutes to read
Those who believe in making major reforms to criminal justice in Canada were heartened a few years ago. The new Liberal government in 2015 made many commitments to address at least some of the many problems in the system. Four years later, essentially none of those commitments were met, and the new government appears to have lost interest in the whole issue. The 2019 mandate letters to ministers, released recently (which can be found here) make no mention of the criminal justice commitments from 2015 nor do they make any significant new ones.
A recent short piece in the Ottawa Citizen by law professor Lisa Kerr and criminologist Anthony Doob discussed this situation. Kerr and Doob – two of Canada’s best public commentators on criminal justice – mention some of the broken promises of 2015, in particular mandatory minimum sentences, proper access to pardons, and improvement of parole.
They point out that the Minister of Justice in 2015 was given a mandate to review the criminal justice system. The federal government did launch consultations on some issues, and published some interesting material on, for example, sentencing. But it never did anything like a full review, never addressed the huge gap between what we know in this field and our current policy. Most importantly, it failed to make any meaningful changes in legislation. Some changes did occur ‘on the ground’, such as appointing different kinds of people to parole boards. However these changes failed to return things even to where they were 10 years earlier. And they could easily be swept away by a new government with different priorities.
In other cases, such as mandatory minimum sentences, Canadian courts have struck down many specific provisions. Still, the general framework remains untouched despite the Liberal promise in 2015.
Other key issues
Because of word limitations, other important issues are not addressed or mentioned only briefly in their piece. The enormous overrepresentation of Indigenous people (and of Black people) in prisons has gotten worse, not better. Conditions in Canadian prisons (as revealed by the Correctional investigator) have gotten worse, while conditions in provincial jails are appalling. The huge problem of holding people while on remand is getting worse, which in turn leads to people pleading guilty to things they did not do. There is still an abject lack of services and supports for people who leave jail. This makes it harder to live a crime-free life even though we know that most people never commit a second offense.
The system continues to overcharge of people for minor bail and parole violations (often for conditions which should not have been imposed in the first place). The lifetime consequences of a criminal record are becoming increasingly harsh. And much of the public view of criminal justice policy is fueled by the way the media dramatically exaggerate crime and focus on punishment, deliberately stoking fear and anger while badly misrepresenting the real state of affairs. All of these cry out for attention yet are apparently not on the government’s agenda.
And all of this costs the Canadian public many billions of dollars per year while imposing unnecessary and unfair costs on a very large number of people.
The gap between evidence and policy
Criminal justice is a field in which there is considerable consensus among experts on good policy directions. That is not the case in many other areas of public policy. Yet this consensus has very little effect on public policy. More needs to be done to bring public and political attention to what we know. That in turn requires alliances between researchers, policy analysts, and the many civil society groups that have a strong interest in a better system. Change in policy comes mostly from public pressure; there are good reasons for citizens to exert that pressure if they were more aware of the evidence.