Justice Not Jail

 It would take a lot for me to believe that someone belongs in prison; even more if that person is a youth. Yet, Canada has had a history of high youth incarceration rates, even higher than in the United States. All the experts know that prison will not rehabilitate and is no place for a young person. That is why we continually rework the way we deal with young offenders in Canada, the most recent being the Youth Criminal Justice Act which desires to keep youth out of prison and in good community programs.

The problem is that for all the legislation that gets passed, actually carrying out the new policies takes much longer. On top of that, the public pressure to deal with criminals harshly begins winning the political battle and more and more of our young people end up behind bars.

A recent example of this is the response to the death of Constable Garrett Styles who was dragged and then pinned by a car he stopped that was being driven by a 15 year old. People are understandable and rightfully upset that this young officer is dead. It is tragic and a horrific result of some very poor choices by a teenager.

So often our grief is accompanied by anger and a desire for ‘justice’.  However the justice we want is really vengeance and not justice at all.  People want the criminal to pay. Charged with first degree murder many people want to see this young person “pay” for their crimes and “suffer”. The problem is that this type of reactionary thinking only ever leads to punishment and never leads to healthier communities, healthier young people and less crime.

10 years for first-degree murder for a youth who has been reported as paralyzed from the incident will not accomplish anything.

Sending a young person to prison or closed custody is like sending them to gladiator school. One of my favourite books on the subject is a look at Canadian street gangs by Michael C. Chettleburgh, Young Thugs. There is so much public pressure for stiffer sentencing of crimes.  This leads to our money being spent on MORE ARRESTS, MORE CONVICTIONS, MORE BARS... and lots more $$$$. And all of that for something that barely any of the experts on the subject even think is effective in any way.

A very, very few number of currently incarcerated Canadians could be classified as actually “psychopathic” or “sociopathic”. This means that the vast majority are capable of learning what it means to live in healthy community as a part of healthy community.  This is not something any of them will learn by being isolated from community.  It is counter-intuitive to remove people from community and believe that they will be able to re-enter it having learned better how to be a part of it.

Yet again, we get caught up in making our choices out of fear.  Fear that we become a victim of violence or other crime. The reality though is that rather than dealing with root causes of why youth become involved with crime we prefer to just stick them in a facility and delude ourselves into believing that justice has been done and somehow we have made our streets safer and done some good.  Chettleburgh has a great quote that the way we deal with youth crime is like, "Ridding your lawn of dandelions by snipping off the heads." For those who don’t understand that reference, snipping off the heads won’t deal with your weed problem AT ALL, you have to get to the root;

Rather than fear the fate that befell young Jane Creba and Phillipe Haiart, we ought to be concerned about the causes of the dangers we most abhor, because this is a much more productive application of our anxiety.  Take poverty, for instance.  Countless studies by sociologists around the world show conclusively that poverty correlates strongly with crime, child abuse, drug use and the incidence of street gangs.  So too does income disparity between rich and poor, which displays a strong correlations with both higher crime and negative health outcomes.  By and large, in regard to street gangs, we fear the outcome but not the cause, and unfortunate case of inverted thinking that perpetuates our culture of fear...

... It seems to me that an enlightened approach would be for Canadians to direct their anxiety against the ingredients of street gangs.  So, rather than recoiling from gangs, let’s recoil from poverty, social exclusion, discrimination, neglect of new immigrants, decaying cities, income disparity, “affluenza” and the other social afflictions that drive youth to gangs in the first place.

Michael C. Chettleburgh

Now you might think, “Sure, but that is about gangs and doesn’t apply for that 15 year old who is responsible for the death of Cons. Styles.” I believe that the same response applies.  We fear the outcome but not the cause. What led that 15 year old to that place and that decision on that night?  What can that teach us about how to help future 15 year old avoid similar choices?

Another thing we do is focus on made up causes like video games or music... much more comfortable for us than needing to look at our society as a whole and how we are unwilling to change our obsession with wealth and how it leaves so many poor as a result. Many would be willing to outright ban or outlaw certain video games (and understandably so) but “then we ought also to ban things with a proven correlation... such as unemployment, inner-city social housing projects and families headed by poor, single females.” It is easier to blame Grand Theft Auto (a crass and violent video game) than to deal with the fact that we need to increase the standard of living for so many Canadians.

And when we do spend money, we spend it the completely wrong way. Take a kid who is a fringe gang member.  Involved in the activities of the gang and arrested in a gang sweep. The public will push for them to ‘pay for their crimes’. Chettleburgh asks, “Are we as a society best served by incarcerating him for five years? About $76,000 per year to keep him in a medium-security federal prison might see him come out a hardened gangster.  By investing that $380,000 in intensive rehabilitation, counselling and job training, perhaps he could be set on a more productive course... the same financial investment... two vastly different outcomes.”  Can you imagine we took $380,000 for every young person sentenced to 5 years in closed custody and instead used it to invest in their lives?

Why do we insist on spending money on ineffective and damaging punishment rather than investing in the lives of our youth who commit crimes to help them seize the opportunity to do something with their lives? And it’s not only our response that is faulty. Perhaps we could have done something much, much earlier, by investing in crime prevention. “Every dollar spent on crime-prevention programs that focus on children saves seven dollars of judicial and other ancillary costs”. Yet, from ’03-’05 when Toronto spent $16 million to “enhance community safety and target youth crime” “less than 0.33% [of that money] went towards prevention programming.”

All of the evidence suggests that we as a society and as communities are better served by focusing on prevention and when that fails to focus on the actual rehabilitation of our young offenders by investing in useful programming that will focus on life skills and teaching youth about their worth and value and how to engage in healthy relationships, good community engagement and positive behaviours. (A little plug since these are the 5 areas The Dam is geared to impacting).

An Aboriginal Canadian woman asked the police if they would stop putting abusive men from their community in prison. She commented that they take the violent and abusive men and isolate them from community and put them in a hostile and violent atmosphere and then return them back to their communities worse than they were when they left. “Let us teach them how to live in community,” she asked. As communities we need to be as willing as this to take responsibility for the healing of those who need their ability to live well in community restored.

Can we get passed our anger?  Can we get past our response of grief and sadness?  Can we give up our delusions of the positive impact of incarceration? Can we journey through that and get to the place of wanting to see actual justice happen? There we find restoration, transformation, healing for the one who has committed the offense and the ones who have been hurt by it as well. This is love defeating fear.

I couldn't find the book with

I couldn't find the book with the story about the Aboriginal Canadian woman at the time I wrote this, but I found it now. Here is the full reference from Restorative Justice: Transforming Society by Arthur Lockhart & Lynn Zammit. (The Dam staff were training a couple years ago in Restorative Justice by Arthur Lockhart.)

A Cree grandmother from northern Quebec [and I] were talking about family violence, and she was concerned about our insistence on taking abusive men out to jail. "We know you do this to protect the women and children," she told me, "but to protect us in your way, you would have to keep them there forever.  Since you don't, we'd like to try our way instead." When I asked what her way was, she said something along the following lines: "In our understanding, anyone who can act in these ways towards others has somehow learned, perhaps while growing up, that relationships are things based on values like anger, power, fear, jealousy and so on." She then asked what values relationships were built on inside our jails; I took it as a rhetorical question.  She then expressed her fear that going to jail might make it even harder for her community to teach those men, when they came back, how to live in relationships built on values like trust, openness, respect and sharing instead.:

I wish I could tell you how many times such simply-stated observations by aboriginal people (especially the grandmothers!) have shaken my professional convictions to the very core.

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