Category Archives: collaborative justice

Can This Pandemic Propel Us Away from Prisons?

Trapped in our new realities, we hope that on the other side of this pandemic, we will see fundamental changes to our socio-economic structures and to how we value human life and work.

We hope that our governments will implement significant policy changes, lessons of Covid-19. But we also know that, on many fronts, that hope is merely an illusion, a shimmery silver thread that glimmers far away in the darkness and is gone when daylight or normalcy returns.

One of these illusions relates to prisons and our notion of punishment, where the need for transformative change is urgent, but the likelihood a mere fantasy. Canada has been sorely reticent in addressing the threat of Covid-19 in our jails, let alone use it as a platform for long-term change.

Weeks ago, other countries began the release of prisoners in an attempt to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in jails. But Canada has only recently taken timid steps, while the virus mercilessly spreads among prisoners and correctional officers across the country, even closing down a Brampton jail as of April 20, with the inmates all being transferred to the already beleaguered Toronto South Detention Centre, a prison that has been widely criticized for its inhumane conditions and treatment of inmates, with one judge describing the situation as the state engaging in a “deliberate form of misconduct.”

Canada’s approximately 39, 000 prisoners are already living in horrid conditions, for the most part: over-crowding, insufficient access to medical, rehabilitative, and mental health resources, little to no access to family, and constant lock-downs are daily realities for many inmates. Now add under-staffing, the fact that half the population suffers from mental illnesses, many have been abused or lived through trauma, and that Indigenous peoples and the poor are over-represented in our prisons, and you have a noxious cocktail that simply cannot satisfy the objectives of sentencing: rehabilitation, reintegration, and reparation.

What’s more, there is nothing here that is conducive to properly dealing with a pandemic within the prison system.

There is no room in our jails for social distancing.

There are no hand sanitizers or masks for inmates.

Jail Cell

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay




There are short-term steps that can be taken now to alleviate the threat of Covid-19 to inmates. Depopulating prisons, a call that has been largely ignored by our provincial and federal governments, will help more immediate terms, but is not the transformative, long-term shift that we need in our criminal justice system.

We need to permit this pandemic to change how we think about prisons and punishment.

Depopulate prisons now, but then use the opportunity to think about how we can build a more effective, humane, rehabilitative system of “punishment,” one which is more healing to offenders AND to victims.

But how do we transform a beast that has been integrated into our notion of justice for centuries?

The good news is that, with or without Covid-19, there has always been an alternative to jails.  Restorative justice has been proven to improve rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, instill accountability, and provide greater healing to victims.

Restorative justice brings together the offender, the victim, and their supporters with highly trained professional facilitators for meetings. Participants share stories, ask difficult questions, and agree to an appropriate resolution. Restorative justice has been used for centuries among Indigenous peoples.  It has proven effective not only in simple cases of assault and theft, but also in serious cases, such as drunk driving, home invasion, and sexual assault.

At its core, restorative justice is about healing and helping those involved in the criminal justice system.

But its other invaluable benefit is that it breaks our addiction to jails, giving us the ability to reduce, drastically, the number of people rotting in our ineffective and overcrowded prisons.

And that, in turn, will mean that during a pandemic or other national emergency, we will be in a better position to protect inmates, staff, and the public.  It’s win-win-win, and it’s been staring us in the face for decades.

The pandemic is forcing us to rethink our traditional assumptions, and our business, health, and education models.  The time is right to do the same with punishment and prisons.

Will our politicians have the courage to make the change?  Will we have the drive and compassion to demand it?

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Filed under collaborative justice, criminal justice, jails, Prisons, Restorative justice, Victim offender reconciliation

Reducing Court Congestion Is Easy

[1]The examples below are based on actual incidents from around Toronto, but names and other information about  individuals have been changed to preserve their identity.

Sheena, Farzaneh and a third classmate were walking in the crowded halls of their junior high,  joking around with one another.  Sheena and Farzaneh grabbed Kim’s scarf and threw it to one another.  After Sheena threw it, she did not see what happened to the scarf, the bell rang, and the girls went into their classroom.  Kim could not find her scarf.  Upset, she reported it to a teacher.  The police were called, and Sheena and Farzaneh were both charged with theft.

Sahir and James were Grade 9 high school friends.  One day, for no clear reason, they removed one of the school’s fire extinguishers and sprayed it all over an empty portable classroom.  The police were called and Sahir and James were both charged with possession of stolen property (the fire extinguisher) and with mischief.

Mira told the police that Katrina, a landed immigrant, a wife, and a mother of two children, aged 7 and 5, hit and broke her camera at a cultural event attended by hundreds of people.  The damages were estimated at $500.00.   Without conducting any further investigation, the police went to Katrina’s home, and violently arrested her in front of her two young children.   Katrina was charged with mischief.  After a year-and-a-half in the criminal justice system, tremendous hardship, and lasting psychological harm to Katrina’s children who became fearful of the police, the Crown Attorney withdrew her charges.

In a different time, in a different place, all of these interactions might have been dealt with reasonably, rationally, and by the community.

In the lost scarf scenario, the teachers, the principal or even Kim’s parents, might have sat down with Sheena and Farzaneh, found out if the incident was truly an accident or a case of excessive teasing.  They might have talked to Sheena and Farzaneh’s parents, and enlisted everyone’s help in finding or replacing the scarf.  They might have engaged in the kind of conversation that would have helped Sheena and Farzaneh see the impact of their actions, especially if they were bullying Kim.  Kim would have felt heard and empowered, and Sheena and Farzaneh would have helped in the healing.

Sahir and James may have received a stern talk from the principal and their parents.  Maybe they would have been grounded.  Maybe they would have been suspended for a couple of days.  They would have helped with the clean-up of the classroom and perhaps paid for any damages.  They would have, in real terms, been responsible for their actions.  And they would have continued their studies, without the stigma of a criminal charge.

In Katrina and Mira’s case, the police could have investigated the case further, instead of attacking and arresting Katrina in her home, in front of her children.  They could have easily found out that another person claimed responsibility for bumping into the camera; and that it was an accident.  They could have simply called in Katrina, who would have gone into the police station and told them her version of the events.  There was no need to treat her so violently.

In all of the above scenarios, the community and the police had several options available to them to deal with each case comprehensively, responsibly, and in a way that would have satisfied everyone, without causing further harm.  Instead, everyone abdicated their own responsibility and immediately opted to use a sledgehammer to kill an ant.

Everyone reached for their guns.

Sheena and Farzaneh, two young girls who had never been in trouble with the law before, were now viewed as “criminals.”  They had to take time off school to appear in court several times.  They were dragged through the criminal justice system.  Police time, court time and legal aid, all limited resources, were wasted on the kind of thing that many view as normal, if undesirable teenage behaviour.

Sahir and James, neither of whom had a criminal record, also got their first taste of an expensive and at times disorganized criminal justice system.  Rather than feel responsible for their actions, they felt the heavy hand of the law and the unfairness of a disproportionate response to their actions- actions which, again, at different times, would have been dismissed as “boys will be boys,” as letting off steam.  Actions which did not harm any one individual.  While we don’t have to excuse or dismiss negative behaviour by young men, there are surely other means of dealing with Sahir and James’s actions than criminalizing them and having their case occupy the criminal justice system for well over a year.

And yet, while every one of us, citizens and politicians, complain about the amount of time and money it takes to get issues resolved in courts, no one is willing to take the simplest, most rational, most sensible step:

To really reduce congestion in the courts, we’ve got to have less cases enter the system, in the first place.

Some cases just don’t belong in the criminal justice system.

There are more effective, more humane, and cheaper ways to deal with some problems.

But instead, we blame not having enough resources.  Instead, we blame defence lawyers for standing up for their clients’ rights and ensuring that our legal system does not become abusive.  Instead, we make laws that widen the net that traps people into the justice system.  Instead, we make mandatory minimum sentences, which will result in more people opting for a trial, as opposed to pleading guilty, therefore clogging the system more.  Instead, we take away money from those programs (such as restorative justice ones) designed to resolve conflicts in more meaningful ways that cost less, have greater positive impact, and are less punitive.

Think about it: if you want to reduce hospital and health costs and wait time resulting from smoking, would you hand out more cigarettes, make them easier for young people to obtain, build more hospitals, or would you invest in preventing smoking, in the first place?

If you want to reduce congestion on the roads, would you take away the bicycle lanes, make a rule that everyone has to drive to work, reduce public transit services, or would you make it easier for people to get to their destination without having to drive?

The most effective way to reduce any kind of traffic is to deal with the problem at the point of entry.  Everyone of us, and in particular actors in the criminal justice system, need to take responsibility for this.

Parents and educators must demand that schools and the police make greater efforts to teach, preach and practice conflict resolution skills.  Let’s not waste resources by calling the police for every lost or broken item.  Let’s abandon our zero-tolerance policy toward any aberrant act.  Let’s focus on meaningful options for conflict resolution.

Our police should also be trained to avoid laying charges, where the actions are minor and where other, more effective forms of conflict resolution exist and can be helpful.  Any criminal lawyer can make a long list of cases where clients were charged with petty offences for actions that were hardly dangerous and that can be dealt with better in other ways.  Any criminal lawyer can tell you of cases he or she had where, had the police conducted a fuller investigation, they may not have charged the client.  Any criminal lawyer can make a list of cases where there was barely any reliable evidence against their client.

Once the police charge these people, the cases enter the criminal justice system and stay there–rotting, delaying justice, labeling, stigmatizing, and frustrating accused and victims alike.

Crown Attorneys generally do not have the time and sometimes lack the courage, at an early stage, to just pull out cases that don’t belong in the courts.  Their policies and directions need to change, as well.  That is a crucial step in reducing court congestion.

As a community, we need to be ready to deal with conflicts through mediation and other restorative justice means.  As educators, we need to teach young people to understand the impact of their actions and be accountable.  We need to help victims feel heard and empowered.  We need to help accused persons feel connected and capable of making other choices.

We need to make everyone responsible for the solution, rather just hold the criminal justice system responsible for everyone’s failures.

We need to train our officers to solve conflicts more peacefully and collaboratively, to speak, engage, build trust and help find solutions.  And we need to give Crown Attorneys the time, the direction, and the freedom to examine files early on, to determine if the case before them belongs in the criminal justice system, in the first place, and to determine if it should be resolved through alternative means.

It turns out that the best and easiest way to reduce court congestion is also the most sensible, the most ethical, and the most responsible option.  We need the political will to implement it.  And the political will will come only when voters demand it.

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Filed under Collaboration, collaborative justice, Court congestion, Court delay, criminal justice, Restorative justice

What’s the Point of Occupy? (My hopes and views)

First came the eviction of the Occupy movement from public places.   Next came its banishment from mainstream media.  Left behind were the many unanswered questions about the movement’s purpose, usefulness, and efficacy.   As a lawyer and a part-time professor in a college legal program, I have repeatedly heard those questions and criticisms from my students and others, both the youthful and the experienced.

“What exactly is the specific point of the Occupy movement?  We’ve got the best system there is. We don’t need to revolutionize it.”  Or, “If people want to make a change, why don’t they work hard and become social workers, vote or run for office?”

There are good answers to all of these questions.  I’d like to share mine with you.

Why not change our democracy from within?  Why do we need a whole new system of economic and social relations and policies?  Indeed, why not dedicate oneself to a single cause, as so many noble persons have done in the past?   The answer is that working on one cause, such as sufficient care for seniors or more affordable housing, does not change the foundations of a system that leads to injustice, in the first place, and that perpetuates systemic inequities.

If you want to change one aspect of the current system, then small steps, such as a career in social services or voting and lobbying, may be effective.  But exercising the right to vote hasn’t stopped the relative powerlessness of struggling families who can’t negotiate with a bank.  Hard-working people still have to choose between essential medical care and food for their families.

In fact, when we get completely engrossed in a single project we become so consumed with advancing that one cause that we have no time to address the roots of the problem, to prevent the creation of more victims.  To focus on any one isolated issue leaves us no time to address the structural problems of our system.

Our system is better than previous or other forms of government, but it still unfairly and unjustly benefits certain groups at a heavy cost to others, much like its predecessors.

At one time, we accepted that kings have the right to exercise control over their subjects, their subjects’ chattel, and their subjects’ livelihood.  In North America, at least, we no longer have monarchs.

But we have made kings of our bankers and big businesses.

Our banks invest our money at great profit for the banks, but with little return to most people.  Saving money no longer makes people rich, but it does make them poor.  And people are evicted from their homes because it’s more profitable for banks to resell those homes than to re-negotiate a different contract.  The enforcement of the bank’s immediate financial “rights” under the contract is deemed more valuable than dignity, shelter, and collaboration.

Big businesses determine the terms of contracts, so that a contract is not an agreement negotiated between two or more relatively equal parties, but simply a dictation of terms that one can accept absolutely or not.  In accepting such a contract, one surrenders all power to negotiate and collaborate.  Refusing standard terms leaves you in the dust, because it means that you can’t do business with Walmart, you can’t download an application, you can’t rent a car, and you can’t do business on-line.

We justify the relative power of banks and mega-business over others, their continued amassing of wealth, and their authority to negotiate contracts on their terms.  We contend that anyone else who is worthy is free to conduct the same business.  Therefore, the system is just, natural, ethical and fair.  But our system is not all of those things.  It is a human invention, subject to the shortcomings and injustices of all human constructions that came before it and will follow it.

The Occupy movement recognizes these shortcomings and seeks a grander, more fundamental change.

And THAT is the point of the movement: to change the assumptions of our system, to change our discourse, and to change the means by which we seek to promote justice and fairness, by ensuring that justice and fairness for all can actually be realized.  And precisely because the message of the Occupy movement is that the whole system needs to be changed, it doesn’t have a single, isolated, neatly defined goal.

In other words, just because our system is better than others past and present doesn’t mean that we should pacify ourselves into quiet surrender.

Instead, why not permit our progress as human beings to inspire us to advance and to seek grand change?

If the only constant is change, why not direct it to a more equitable path? [i]

We can direct both the course and the means of that transformation.  To be effective, such a change has to be made on a larger scale, and not only one small amendment at a time.

No grand-scale positive changes have ever resulted from accepting the status quo and working within its confines only.  The end of feudalism, the overturn of any monarchies, the beginnings of democracy, the end of Communism—none of these indisputably great social changes resulted from the peoples’ simple submission to the systems that existed, and their surrender and acquiescence to make changes within the system only.

But we need not fear a bloody revolution that will lead us to totalitarianism or North-Korean style Communism.  While the Occupy movement aims to revolutionize our system, its path entwines with its goal: to reach a peaceful, just society through collaboration and peaceful means.   The occupations have begun a conversation to lead us on a new course.

And while detractors may criticize the lack of clear objectives and of a roadmap in the Occupy movement, it is comforting that the precise boundaries and terms of this new system are undefined by the Occupy movement.  To do otherwise would be hypocritical.   What the movement does have are working principles that are true to its goal: the principles of collaboration, equity and sustainability. These principles will also determine the means by which we effect change.[ii]

The direction and the extent of such changes are only restrained by the limits of our hope and imagination and our willingness to cooperate.

The Occupy movement is the expression of this hope.  It is both its muse and its fuel.  Moving it and shoving it around may delay it, may modify its speed, but it will not stop its momentum.[iii]

[i] To review David Suzuki’s comments on the constancy of human change and the aims of the Occupy movement, see

[ii] To review some of the goals of the Occupy movement, go to

[iii] To watch an eloquent and moving explanation of the Occupy movement, view Charles Eisenstein’s explanation here: Charles Eisenstein is the author of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition.  And Leonard Cohen’s poetic and touching tribute to Occupy can be seen here:    (with thanks to Bob K. for bringing this video to my attention.  )


Filed under collaborative justice, Sustainability

Stop This Bus, Mr. Oliver

Dear Mr. Oliver,

I imagine that if you are a proponent of the Omnibus Crime Bill, then you believe that it speaks for victims.  If your goal is to help victims, to allow them to heal faster, and to ensure that there are fewer victims, then I urge you to engage your colleagues and other members of the Conservative Party to abandon this Bill.

No doubt you are familiar with the many arguments against this Crime Bill.  There is, of course, the fact that higher jail terms and mandatory incarceration are not going to reduce crime or recidivism.  What is more, incarceration, particularly of people who have little or no criminal history or have not been jailed in the past is likely to increase their chances of recidivism.  These are the conclusions reached by study after study that deal with punishment and crime.  This consideration, alone, tells us that the Bill is, at best, a waste of resources.

But the Omnibus Crime Bill is more than misguided.  It is also enormously costly.  How can we justify the billions of dollars that will be spent on what is purely a mechanism for punishment, when our and the world’s economies are in such precarious positions, and when so many of our fundamental institutions are in need of support?  How can a government that advocates lower spending throw billions of dollars away in this manner?

You might say that it does not matter if the Bill does not reduce recidivism.  You might argue that the cost of the Bill in insignificant when one considers victims’ rights.

If we truly care about victims, let’s take the two steps that are the most likely to help.

If we truly care about victims, if we want to ensure that they feel secure, healed, and empowered, let’s invest in programs and processes that help them heal, feel secure and empowered.  Seeing a perpetrator thrown in jail may make people feel that justice has been done, but it does not take away their fear, it does not make them feel secure.

Punishment, throwing people in jail, and looking away, do not make victims feel that they have been heard, or that their loss has, at least, had some positive impact.

But we do have processes that are proven to help victims heal, that include the victim in a meaningful way, and that help victims feel that justice has been done in a way that no harsh sentence and law can.  Restorative justice and victim-offender reconciliation programs are powerful and effective means of meeting the needs of victims, while holding offenders accountable for their actions.  If we only take a portion of the money required to bring the Crime

Bill into effect and put it toward restorative justice efforts, then we are sure to help victims.  What is more, restorative justice is more likely to reduce recidivism, and it will cost much less than the billions of dollars required by this Bill.

Furthermore, rather than focusing on retribution and incarceration, we can take steps that ensure that we have less victims, in the first place.  Let’s invest in education, in the health of children, in support for young people and for  families, in particular families who live in poverty.  Let’s invest in prevention of crime, so that we have less victims.

There is nothing good in a Bill that creates mandatory minimums, removes discretion from judges who have heard all the facts of a case and the circumstances surrounding the facts, focuses simply on punishment, doesn’t do anything to reduce crime, and takes billions of dollars from Canadians and essentially throws it away.

I ask you to please listen to all the criticisms against this Bill.  I urge you to dissuade your colleagues from supporting this destructive project.  It cannot be easy to stop this fast-moving train, but conscience and ethics demand that you do what is required to stop this Bill.

I hope that I can count on you, my Member of Parliament, to do whatever is possible to take this Bill off the legislative table.

Dyanoosh Youssefi

Eglinton-Lawrence resident


Filed under collaborative justice, criminal justice, jails, Prisons, Restorative justice, Uncategorized, Victim offender reconciliation

Justice for Victims: Less Jail Time, More Face Time

While the Federal Conservative government is spending billions of dollars to build more prisons, to jail more people, and to punish with greater vengeance, all in the name of tackling crime and of justice for victims, the province of Alberta apparently cannot come up with a measly $351,000 for the one measure that is proven to actually help victims and possibly to reduce crime: victim-offender reconciliation.

Alberta’s Public Security Department announced on Monday that it is ending the annual $351,000 grant for restorative justice programs, allegedly because economic times are tough.

Victim-offender reconciliation (V.O.R.), a form of restorative justice, is one of the most effective and humane means of dealing with crime. It involves mediated or facilitated meetings between offenders and victims. The aim of V.O.R. is, on the one hand, to ensure that offenders comprehend the full human impact of their actions, and that they voluntarily –and genuinely–take some responsibility for those actions. Equally significant, reconciliations help victims cope with their trauma and reduce their fears by humanizing the offender. They help victims move on with their lives. When done right, victim-offender reconciliations may even lead to the wondrous result of the victims helping the offenders overcome those life obstacles that lead them to commit the crimes.

If politicians truly care about victims and want justice for victims, they must look beyond the impulsive urge for punishment for the sake of punishment. They must look at processes that in fact make victims feel whole and restored. Harsh imprisonment may satisfy a desire for “justice” as revenge, but it does not bring about true justice. It never helps victims actually cope with their trauma. Yet incarceration and punishment continue to be the reckless and irrational mission of law-and-order governments.

Furthermore, as a society, we continue to use avoidance and punishment to deal with problems and conflicts that, in fact, require conversation, reflection, commitment, responsibility and empathy.

In its essence, crime is the infliction of pain (sometimes horrible and tragic) by one person on another. Friends sometimes do this to each other, though on a different scale. It is true that when wronged by a friend, some people choose avoidance and simply cut off a relationship. But we know that the better and more effective way of dealing with that pain is to confront the friend and to communicate with them. Why would it be any different if some other human being causes us pain? Why would we choose avoidance and punishment, rather than communication and resolution? Why would we not seek to open the doors to victim-offender reconciliation?

The path of victim-offender reconciliation is not easy- least of all for the offender. It is demanding. It can be emotionally draining and gruelling. It compels the offender to deal with his actions and their consequences, rather than bury the memories, ignore responsibility, or rationalize his behaviour. It impels the offender to make amends, thereby helping the victim and improving his own life. And because V.O.R. forces the offender to confront the victim, and mobilizes everyone to deal with the underlying issues that lead to the criminal behaviour, it is effective.

After all, what is more likely to reduce recidivism: an authentic, deep and personal examination of one’s actions, their consequences, and the acceptance of responsibility, or a jail cell where an offender is taught little conflict management or other skills? What is more likely to empower victims and to help offenders change direction: a process that encourages everyone to tackle the underlying factors that lead to the crime, or a prison sentence where the offender develops bonds with others who are also leading a life of crime? The benefits of restorative justice to the victim who heals emotionally and to the offender who humanizes his victim are simply greater than any money-saving measure.

And while it is difficult to measure what the cost savings are, surely reconciliation is more cost-effective than imprisonment. The cost of incarceration is extremely high, ranging from $89,000 to $250,000 per year. This cost does not include the eventual costs to society of unemployable, beaten or unstable individuals, once they are released from jail.

But “law-and-order” politicians and our current Conservative government continue to charge anyone who opposes the backward and Draconian push for more jails and longer sentences as being “soft on crime.” They regularly accuse detractors of not caring about victims.

If we truly care about victims, however, we must help them cope and heal. Victim-offender reconciliation programs across North America have proven that the process of restorative justice can do just that, in a way that no tough sentence alone can ever do.

According to the CBC and the Edmonton Journal, the $351,000 per year grant (the equivalent of incarcerating two inmates for one year) helped victims and offenders in 218 criminal cases in one single year (2009). With each case bringing together at least one offender and often more than one victim as well as mediators, the $351,000 helped over 436 victims and offenders, and brought together 1000 or more people. Try stuffing that in a jail cell.

(To read the reflections of an ex-offender on restorative justice and the London riots, see this article: Restorative Justice After the Riots?)

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Filed under collaborative justice, criminal justice, jails, Prisons, Restorative justice, Uncategorized, Victim offender reconciliation

New Policies Won’t End Police Abuse of Power. What Will?

It’s a familiar cycle: police violence, followed by a public outcry, followed by one or more investigations (or, in very rare circumstances, an inquiry), denial of responsibility by the perpetrators and their forces, a slew of recommendations, some of which may develop into policies, a few rare ones that lead to legislation, and, finally, a burdensome and lengthy implementation process. By the time the implementation stage is reached, the memory of the initial tragic events is a blur to most people. The state actors who engaged in the aggression have indignantly rationalized their actions. And in the interim, there have been more acts of unacceptable and unjustifiable state violence.

Many such events have occurred in Canada in the past few years: police violence and abuse of power during the G20; the death of Ashley Smith while in the custody of an oppressive, neglectful and abusive prison system; the R.C.M.P. beatings of prisoners (on the radar only because they were caught on video). But despite all the effort, thought, cooperation and money that goes into reviewing or investigating these horrific abuses of power, there is not a smidgen of a hope that there will be enough fundamental change so that we can avoid the same tragedies in the future.

When there are investigations, and if such investigations are lead by civilians, as opposed to the police (who often excuse the wrongful or criminal behaviour of their brethren), they usually end with a list of recommendations. These recommendations rarely lead to new policies and laws. But even if new policies are implemented in response to the recommendations, what then?

Here is where I get cynical.

Changes in laws and policies are useful and are indicators of our moral compass. But they achieve little. They give false hope.

Law and policies, alone, do not make for a just society. They do not prevent police abuse of power or prison guard disdain and apathy.

During the G20 summit in Toronto, the police knew that what they were doing to protestors and non-protestors alike violated our basic Charter rights. They knew that nearly all the people they were detaining or arresting had not committed a criminal offence. They knew that threatening rape, breaking off someone’s prosthetic leg, leaving people in the pouring rain, holding handcuffed people without food, water, or bathrooms, or caging them in cold, crammed cells was all illegal, contrary to existing policies, and otherwise inhumane and unacceptable in our society. Yet they did it all anyway.

So far, the police have rationalized their behaviour. They continue to reject criticism. They do not see themselves as answerable to the people they harmed or to Canadians, in general. They ignore the call for accountability.

For any police officers who were disgusted by what was going on –and I have no doubt that there were many– none have had the courage to come forward. That is a sad but not surprising reality, as speaking up against their brothers would be career suicide. I hope that, in time, some of them will work up the courage to break ranks and describe what they know.

As for the guards and prison officials in Ashley Smith’s case, had they wished, they could have seen that her deteriorating mental condition was a direct result of her incarceration. They could have seen the oppressive and horrendous consequences of her mistreatment and prolonged solitary confinement.

Yet they went about their daily business. They ran the jails, but did not care for the inmates. There were plenty of regulations in place to prevent a death like Ashley’s, but none of them helped in the face of the tired, frustrated, apathetic, resentful or short-sighted institutional staff.

History and experience teach us that governments and the police can ignore, interpret and revise rules, policies, and rights to suit their own ends. In Western democratic societies, we have placed obstacles to prevent such abuse of power. But those procedural safeguards and entrenched rights are often seen merely as that- obstacles to overcome. They were overcome during the G20, and they will be overcome again, unless a much more fundamental transformation takes place.

What will lead to such a transformation? What is that key factor that will ensure that abuse at the hands of the state does not occur?

Empathy and empathy training. They are the only means and hope for fundamental change.

If people in power are trained to deal with others with empathy, then even bad laws, such as the Regulation under the Public Works Protection Act which was enacted for the benefit of the police during the summit, would cause less harm and damage. If a cop has empathy and basic human respect for others, he won’t threaten, mock, or use abusive language, even when attempting to search people under a Regulation that should have never been revived from its war-time tomb.

If people in authority exercise empathy, they will jump to the rescue of those who need them, regardless of institutional rules or protocol. With empathy, they will not dehumanize another because she or he is drunk, is black, is homeless, is Native, is a prostitute, or is the voice of dissent.

But our individualistic, legalistic society distrusts such apparently vague and relational principles. We don’t trust one another to treat each other with respect and empathy, so we rely solely on the rule of law- a cold, “objective” law. We’ve surrendered our rights and well-being entirely to laws and policies. We’ve put our trust and hope in our governments and their ability to legislate what’s good. We’ve abandoned notions of community, of taking care of one another, of empathy.

But without empathy, even good laws and policies will be put to bad use.

People fear that an officer with empathy will be weak. We expect our police to be tough, and we equate being tough with being uncaring, even callous. But there is nothing that supports the notion that an officer cannot do his or her job competently and properly– cannot investigate, apprehend, and arrest someone– while at the same time respecting a person as a human being, despite the officers’ dislike of the actions attributed to that person.

Police can arrest an alleged thief without beating her up or mocking her. They can calm a street person who may be breaching the peace and is off his medication without dragging him to an isolated area, beating him, or shooting him. They can deal with protestors whom they want dispersed without acting like there is an epic battle taking place at the corner of Queen and Spadina.

Kettling at Queen and Spadina Photo by Jonas Naimark

 What police officer would want his own family members subjected to those same conditions that protestors and by-standers were subjected to during the summit? What jail guard would want her own ill child jailed and then shipped from institution to institution without any help?

Empathy and compassion would not make a weak police force. On the contrary, in our democratic society, such qualities would make for better policing. Treating others with dignity would even have the added benefit that the police and many members of society want: more convictions against people who have committed offences, whose charges will not be stayed (dismissed, basically) because the cops broke the accused’s jaws, beat him up, denied him medical attention, and then lied about it.

If every weapon-carrying or other representative of state power treated those under his/her control with empathy, our entire system, including our jails, would be not only more humane, but also more effective. The people leaving those institutions might come out with better conflict resolution skills, a greater trust in other human beings, a clearer hope, or a greater determination to change.

The police attempt to engage our empathy when they break laws or breach our rights. “The police had a tough job to do under very difficult circumstances,” is an oft repeated slogan of the police when describing what occurred during the G20. And, in fact, we (the courts, the media, the public) often do treat officers with empathy when they break the laws. If every individual officer and every police force is trained to incorporate that same level of empathy into their own work, then we would have much better relations with our police, far fewer breaches of fundamental rights, no more criminal activity than we do now, and a far more civil society.

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Filed under collaborative justice, criminal justice, Police abuse of power, Police oversight, Policing with empathy