Category Archives: criminal justice

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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Side-stepping, Misleading and Evading: Deciphering Chief Blair’s response to the OIPRD report on police behaviour during the 2010 G20

On May 16, 2012, Toronto’s Chief Bill Blair met with journalists to comment on the Ontario Independent Police Review Director’s report, Policing the Right to Protest, released earlier that day.  The report investigated complaints and made findings into the conduct of the Toronto police during the 2010 G20.  (You can see earlier postings on this topic here and here.) 

The Chief’s response, in my opinion, avoided responsibility, was at times evasive, at times unresponsive, and occasionally misleading.  Over the next few days, I will look at some of these problematic statements.  (One glaring problem a day, more or less)

Avoiding responsibility: the OIPRD report just expresses an “opinion.”

The OIPRD investigators painstakingly reviewed hundreds of hours worth of evidence (police officers’ notes, videos, photographs, interviews, and so on) before coming to the conclusion that during the G20, police officers did violate citizens’ individual and civil rights and liberties and also that excessive force was used on a number of occasions.

Despite the abundance of video footage (for example, the videos that show hundreds of innocent protestors and by-standers under siege by the police for several hours at Queen and Spadina), and personal accounts that confirm, with certainty, that people’s rights were violated, Chief Blair calls the report’s conclusion on this issue merely an “opinion.”

Chief Blair was asked by one journalist whether or not he accepts to rejects the report’s finding that people’s rights were trampled on by police officers (at 17:03 in the video, below).  To this, the Chief responds,

“Well, I think that it certainly requires a hearing.  And generally, I think overwhelmingly, the rights of our citizens were protected that weekend.  There are individual instances where the OIPRD has said that some things, some individual conduct, may have been a violation of rights.  I think that needs to be heard, in a hearing.  Evidence, not opinion, but evidence needs to be brought forward.  And it needs to be brought forward in a hearing according to the rule of law and due process.”

True enough that when the OIPRD refers a matter to the Chief, a hearing under the Police Services Act needs to be conducted before a finding can be made, under that Act, against a police officer.  And yes, the OIPRD’s investigative conclusions are based on a “reasonable belief.”    But to call the OIPRD’s finding that rights were violated during the G20 an “opinion,” and then to imply that, therefore, one cannot conclude that rights were violated on a large-scale, is a mark of denial, evasion, or of eschewing responsibility.  The Chief’s refusal to admit as fact that citizens’ rights were violated, often at-large, and his declaration that the findings in the report merely express an “opinion,” confirm that he continues to deflect and avoid responsibility.  

To many, Chief Blair’s reaction does not come at a surprise, but reflects a continuing sad state of affairs. 

The Chief has said that he is committed to “learning lessons” for the future.  Before he can learn anything, though, he must be willing to call things by their correct names.  Until the Chief (and indeed, our political leaders) are willing to call police conduct during the G20 what it was: improper, excessive, shameful, frightening, and unlawful, we are not going to be learning any lessons for the future.

(next….There Is a Tribunal to deal with police complaints?)

Chief Blair’s press conference May 16, 2012

 

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Empathy: Tap It or Teach It, but Definitely Integrate It

Empathy is poised to become the buzzword of the 21st century– the defining trait of our social and political evolution.  Empathy will be to this century what “rights” was to the 20th century and “equality” was to the 19th century. 

As a word, a concept, and a goal empathy is omnipresent.  From parenting newborns to teaching college students, to training doctors and employees of profit-driven ventures, to effecting radical political and social change, empathy is becoming the prevailing philosophy. 

Organizations, such as Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy, design and bring to schools programs aimed at teaching primary school children and preschoolers to have more empathy.  A school in Cambridge, Ontario, recently raised $6000 to hold an anti-bullying workshop which focuses on building empathy.[i]    Yet another initiative, “The Empathy Project” of Capital University in Ohio, aims to teach college-aged students to have greater empathy.[ii]   Political theory students study Franz de Waal’s The Age of Empathy as part of their university curriculum.[iii]  Author and political advisor, Jeremy Rifkin, explores all aspects of empathy and encourages that we embrace empathy to improve our world.[iv] And empathy has entered the profit-driven workplace and is making an impact, with books such as Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Wide-spread Empathy.[v]  

Yet, at the political level, whether domestic or international, we seem to be shirking from empathy and moving toward more division, blaming, and short-sighted selfishness.  Political divisions appear to be getting starker and more hostile.  In the United States, Canada, and France, political parties that emphasize separation and encourage the “us” against “them” approach flourish.  In Canada, our government and, as a result, we, move toward a more individualistic and vengeful justice system, and build more prisons and impose harsher and longer jail terms, rather than develop effective programs that will prevent crime and will heal those affected by crime, including offenders.  And in an era of cut-backs, international aid and social programs are among the first targets of our political representatives.

It appears that the more some groups in society move toward inclusion, understanding, togetherness and empathy, the more other segments, politicians and governments recoil and seek to distinguish themselves from and set themselves above others. 

Do all human beings have the capacity to identify with others and their experiences? Or are we doomed to an everlasting conflict between those who want to understand and include and those who want to judge and exclude?  Can we teach empathy to everyone?

There are certainly findings that suggest that empathy can be lost or eroded over time.  A study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor concludes that over the last 30 years, college students’ self-reported levels of empathy have decreased and their narcissism has increased.   Several studies have shown that medical students becomes less empathic over the course of medical school, while medical interns become less empathic as their internship progresses.     Other anecdotes suggest that while many young people participate in community and volunteer work, the lessons learned do not stick-  they do not translate into behavioural changes and routine activities where a person can make a real difference.  

But there are also encouraging studies.   Teachers whose students have participated in the Roots of Empathy programs report a decrease in aggressive behaviour by their students.  They also exhibit higher levels of pro-social behaviour.[vi]   Furthermore, efforts into teaching empathy to medical students and to people in the workforce appear to lead to some success.

Like so many other skills, empathy is best learned at a young age.    And what is more reassuring is that we don’t actually need to “teach” empathy.  Unlike knowledge of certain concepts, such as quantum mechanics or even reading, we are not born void of empathy.  We do not need to have our cup filled with empathy from scratch.  We appear to be born, “soft-wired”, as Jeremy Rifkin describes it, with empathy.  We may have different levels of predisposition to empathy, but we all have it, at some level.  Studies of primates and of human babies confirm this finding.[vii]

Since every healthy baby is born with empathy, the task for parents, educators, and the rest of us is to ensure that we do not repress that empathy.  We must encourage and “hard-wire” the empathy that exists in our children, rather than to replace it with anger, jealousy, greed, and a desire for material success that necessitates keeping others down.  And there are plenty of resources to help parents and educators in this invaluable quest. 

True, not all children possess the same level of empathy.  And they definitely differ in their abilities to act on that empathy.  But our acceptance of children’s different abilities, in particular their capacity to share and show kindness, and our appreciation for and encouragement of such kindness—will ultimately encourage more empathy from them. 

What will all this empathy honing and cheerleading mean for justice issues?  What will happen if we change our approach to crime and justice from an individualistic, punishment-oriented one, toward one that uses empathy and brings together offenders and victims, allowing each to understand and feel the pain of the other?  Are the accusations of Canada’s Conservative Party, for example, that anyone who opposes more punitive responses to crime doesn’t care about victims justified?  Are fears that integrating empathy into crime and justice issues make us “soft on crime” valid? 

Empathy is not a new concept in justice issues.  Different societies have, at different times, dealt with crime in an empathetic, cohesive manner, one which contrasts immensely with our own punishment-oriented, individualistic and largely ineffective means of dealing with crime.  Healing circles have been used by Native peoples for centuries.  And the efforts to implement victim-offender reconciliation in the western criminal justice system have been growing. 

The Toronto Star recently ran an encouraging good news story about a high school in Toronto which has, for the past few years, used restorative conferences (much like healing circles and victim-offender reconciliation) to deal with conflicts among students.[viii]  The project has had visibly positive results. 

The proof for the effectiveness of restorative justice, which focuses on the involvement, understanding and empathy of all parties affected (not just one “offender” and one “victim”) is abundant.  Restorative justice is more effective as a means of increasing understanding and accountability, decreasing recidivism, and encouraging individuals and communities to work together. 

We must embrace and encourage empathy in our young, in ourselves, and especially, in our political representatives.  Empathic governing is simply better and more effective at achieving our goals of democracy, equality, peace and security.

Empathy begets cooperation.  Empathy thwarts adversity.  We need to hone it, to implement it, to use it to effect radical social and political change and to reach a higher level in human evolution. 

And then, in about a hundred years or so, we will latch on to the next big idea.

Take a look:

RSA Animate video on The Empathic Civilization:

Jeremy Rifkin on TVO:

The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People:


[i] Kate Hammer, “Schools Teach Empathy As a Way to Combat Bullying.” Theglobeandmail.com, Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

[ii]  Go to: http://empathy.capital.edu/, or check this article on Dispatch.

[iii] For example, students of Political Theory at the University of Toronto study Frans De Waal’s Age of Empathy.

[iv] Rifkin, Jeremy.  The Emphatic Civilization. (Putnam, 2009). You can aslo see portions of Jeremy Rifkin’s appearance on TVO’s The Agenda by clicking here.  Or watch the RSA Animate summary here.

[v]Patnaik, Dev, and Mortensen, Peter.  Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Wide-Spread Empathy (Pearson Education, 2009.)

[vi]Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., Anat Zaidman-Zait, A., & Hertzman, C. (2011) “Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviours in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children.”     See also http://www.rootsofempathy.org/
[vii] See Rifkin’s TVO interview, supra and Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy

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Will Somebody Hold the Police Accountable?

After a lengthy investigation, the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), Ontario’s civilian body responsible for handling complaints against the police, has concluded that police officers unlawfully jumped on, kicked, beat, shoved, threatened, mocked, and broke the nose of Adam Nobody while apparently affecting an arrest during the 2010 G8/G20 events in Toronto.  In a report released on Friday, January 20th, the OIPRD asserts that the use of such force was excessive and discreditable conduct, and recommends that the officers involved face disciplinary hearings.[i]

But the OIPRD’s report and recommendation come more than six months after the organization retained the file, which means that the officers involved will not automatically face a disciplinary hearing—the Toronto Police Services Board, the civilian oversight body for the Toronto Police, must effectively approve that such a hearing be held.

And what is the response of the police union to the recommendation that the officers who beat a handcuffed and sometimes unconscious Nobody face disciplinary hearings?  “We stand behind them,” said Toronto Police Union President Mike McCormack.[ii]  He has urged the Police Services Board not to hold disciplinary hearings against the officers, citing the 6 month delay.

It is no surprise that officers take advantage of every tool provided by the law.  But given that it is the police’s job to ensure that people who commit unlawful acts actually face the consequences of their actions and are held accountable under the law,  we are justified in asking, “Why is it that when the police commit unlawful acts, the union demands that we let it go?”  We might be excused for reacting indignantly to the union’s stance—a stance which seeks to put police officers above the law.

And what can we expect from the Police Services Board?  It’s the Board that now has the power to decide whether a notice of hearing can be served on the officers in question.  In effect, without the Board’s approval, there will be no hearing. The Police Services Act states that, in order to grant its approval, the Board must be of the opinion that “under the circumstances,” it was reasonable to delay serving the notice of hearing. [iii]

Surely the circumstances do exist here.  The case is one that involves important public policy issues dealing with the public’s right to protest, policing such protests, police tactics, and police officers’ beliefs in how citizens who, in their opinion, have broken the law, can be treated.

Furthermore, the volume of evidence that the OIPRD investigators had to sift through was high- significantly more than evidence from the run-of-the mill complaints that make their way to the OIPRD.  The OIPRD interviewed the complainant, interviewed or read reports from 5 other civilian witnesses, 12 police officer witnesses, and the 8 respondent police officers.  It reviewed audio and video evidence, four “volumes” of information from the Special Investigations Unit, the notebook entries of the police officers, and numerous other pieces of evidence.  This voluminous amount of evidence surely justifies a longer investigation period.

Finally, as the report makes no reference to the topic, we do not know if some of the “delay” during the investigation resulted from the slow or reluctant co-operation of the police witnesses, themselves.

When the legislature set out the limitation period it was likely contemplating the more common and straight-forward cases of complaints against one or two police officers.  It is unlikely that the legislature intended a 6-month limitation to apply to cases where many police officers, under an atmosphere of confusion and “mayhem,” as some witnesses described, were the subject of complaints.

In essence, the limitation period ensures that investigations are conducted efficiently and do not drag on indefinitely.  There is no blanket rule preventing investigations from continuing beyond the 6-month period. Under the circumstances, the OIPRD’s report has been produced in a timely manner.  But union President Mike McCormack wants the TPSB to rule otherwise.

McCormack’s position is offensive.  It demands that police officers who have engaged in illegal (and arguably, criminal) acts not be held professionally accountable for their conduct.  It perpetuates the negative and justified public perception that police officers protect one another no matter how egregious the acts of their members may have been.  The union’s position undermines the credibility of the police and the public’s trust and confidence in the police force.  In the end, though, the law allows McCormack to voice his opinion, but the same law grants the Police Services Board the power to approve that the hearings be held.

So what should we do?  How should citizens who want to ensure that the police conduct their job honourably and without resorting to unnecessary violence react?  Can we do anything to prevent the further erosion of the public’s confidence in the police?  Can we ensure that the Police Services Board grants its approval for the hearings?

Yes.  In this case, there is tangible, simple and effective action that we can all take.  We must let the T.P.S.B. and, in particular the three Toronto City Councillors who serve on the T.P.S.B., know that the officers who abused their power in their dealings with Mr. Nobody must be held accountable.[iv]  At the very least, they should face a disciplinary hearing.  Write to the Board and to the City Councillors and ask that they use their discretion to hold the police officers accountable for their actions, and not to protect officers who grossly abuse their powers.   And then, if and when the T.P.S.B. does approve that the hearings be held, follow up to ensure that the disciplinary hearings lead to meaningful consequences.

Demand that our law enforcement agents abide by the laws that they enforce.


[i] Currently, the report is available through the CBC at the following link: http://www.cbc.ca/news/pdf/OIPRDInvestigative-Nobody01132012.pdf

[ii] Adrian Morrow and Tu Thanh Ha, Watchdog accuses officers of excessive force at G20, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, January 21, 2012 at A15.

[iii] Police Services Act, R.S.O. 1990, C.P.15, s.83(17)

[iv] The three Toronto City Councillors who serve on the TPSB are Councillor Mike Thompson, who is also the Vice-Chair of the TPSB (his e-mail address is:  councillor_thompson@toronto.ca), Councillor Chin Lee (councillor_lee@toronto.ca), and Counciller Frances Nunziata (councillor_nunziata@toronto.ca).  For contact information for other City Councillors, go to: http://app.toronto.ca/im/council/councillors.jsp.

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Filed under criminal justice, G20 Posts, G20 posts, resources, and other sites, Police abuse of power, Police oversight, Uncategorized

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

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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