700 words; 3 minutes to read
Summary: A report from the Anti-Police Power Surrey makes three arguments in favour of a smaller criminal justice and penal system in Canada
By Emily Stewart, Associate Editor
Many debates in criminal justice tend to be quite polarized, such as ‘tough on crime’ vs ‘defund the police.’ However, a report from the Anti-Police Power Surrey show the importance of looking at evidence when coming to conclusions about better policy. This report makes three arguments in favour of a smaller criminal justice system and penal presence in Canada.
Those who defend the existence of the police and the penal system often argue that these systems exist to ensure public safety. Politicians, police, and the media may exploit fears of personal threats and physical violence to justify these institutions.
Misconception of the carceral system
Most crimes in Canada do not involve physical violence or harm. Crime rates have been declining, and most offenses are non-violent. Many of the most common crimes include property crimes, victimless crimes (such as prostitution, trespassing, public intoxication, etc.), drug-related offenses, and administrative offenses such as bail or parole violations.
Most crimes against persons, which are often sensationalized in the media and news involve common assault and uttering threats, which typically do not cause physical harm. As mentioned in in a previous post, well over half of violent crimes were either categorized as assault level 1 or uttering threats. Assault level 1 is defined as ‘assault that results in little or no physical harm’ and uttering threats, by definition, also involves no actual physical harm.
Homicide and related crimes receive a vast amount of attention despite only constituting a minimal percentage of overall crime in Canada. Yet even here, simply removing the person from society does not guarantee the prevention of similar incidents. A focus on punishment fails to address the root causes or underlying factors that contribute to such crimes.
These institutions are expensive
Containing and controlling people is an extremely costly endeavor. In Canada, the total public spending on criminal justice per year, including federal, provincial, and municipal contributions, amounts to approximately about $20 billion, with approximately $5 billion going towards jails and prisons. The rest are police, courts, and related costs.
The research evidence is that time in custody does not reduce crime and can actually increase it. Among many other reasons, people in prison are required to spend time with other individuals convicted of committing crimes and are given very little opportunity to engage in useful or positive skills, such as gaining employment experience or acquiring education credentials. These facilities often leave individuals in a worse state than when they entered.
This report also highlights the fact that Canada’s justice system diverts money, labor, and services away from community programs and resources. This diminishes our ability to enhance community care, implement harm reduction measures, improve healthcare, provide housing, and support other community services – all of which are seen to contribute to increased public safety.
Systems of inequality
The report argues that Canada’s carceral system operates as an instrument of control rooted in racialization and social stratification. A disproportionate number of people who are incarcerated belong to marginalized groups, including Indigenous and Black people.
As noted in Anti-Police Power Surrey article, between 2003 and , the number of Indigenous and Black women held in custody increased by 60% and this continues to grow. For example, the Correctional Investigator’s 2021-2022 report found that Indigenous people, who constitute only 5% of the Canadian population, now make up 28% of the federal prison population. Both Indigenous and Black individuals continue to be disproportionality represented in maximum-security institutions, disciplinary measures, use-of-force incidents, and involuntary transfer that can take them away from their families.
The Anti-Police Power Surrey also note that the majority of Black women are incarcerated for drug offenses, including what is often referred to as drug trafficking – which many indicated they did as a means to rise above poverty.
Most crimes in Canada do not involve physical violence or harm and often stem from issues of class, poverty, and economic needs. Not only is incarceration extremely expensive, but it does not necessarily lead to increased public safety and fails to address the systemic and root causes of crime. As argued by The Anti-Police Power Surrey, alternative methods that prioritize rehabilitation and community support are more effective in addressing these issues.
About this blog: The John Howard Canada blog is intended to support greater public understanding of criminal justice issues. Blog content does not necessarily represent the views of John Howard Canada. All blog material may be reproduced freely for any non-profit purpose as long as the source is acknowledged. We welcome comments (moderated).