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News release for JUSTICE AND THE POOR - A National Council of Welfare Publication - Spring 2000
JUSTICE SYSTEM DISCRIMINATES AGAINST THE POOR,
SAYS REPORT BY NATIONAL COUNCIL OF WELFARE
Canada's justice system is irrational, unfair, poorly run and routinely discriminates against poor people, the National Council of Welfare said in a report published today.
Justice and the Poor describes how poor people are most likely to be picked up and charged by police, most likely to be denied bail, most likely to appear in court without adequate legal representation and most likely to wind up serving time.
"Once poor people have been brought into the criminal justice system, the strikes against them continue to accumulate," the report says. "By the sentencing stage, almost all those who remain before the courts are from low-income backgrounds."
The report notes the huge gap between the realities and public perceptions of crime, and it calls on governments and politicians to stop using crime as a "political weapon." Canada is one of the safest countries in the world, but it has a very poor record when it comes to the huge number of people it sends to jail - often for very minor offences or non-payment of fines.
The report contains 21 recommendations for improving the criminal justice system. Most of them are aimed at correcting serious problems related to policing, bail hearings and sentencing. Some of the recommendations echo the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission of Canada, the 1987 recommendations of the Canadian Sentencing Commission, the 1991 recommendations of the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and the 1995 recommendations of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System.
Problems begin with police practices that put far too many poor people into the criminal justice system, the report says.
"People from all levels of society commit crimes, but crime enforcement resources are heavily concentrated on the close surveillance of young men in low-income neighbourhoods. Not surprisingly, the resulting crop of suspects picked up and charged by the police do not reflect the distribution of crime so much as the distribution of poverty in our society."
With respect to bail, the report recommends that police be required to explain in writing why a person is held in jail pending a bail hearing before a judge.
Some bail hearings resemble cattle drives, where people are herded into court and given only a few minutes to consult duty counsel about their legal options. The report says legal aid plans should hire "bail interview officers" to meet accused people in advance and help them prepare for their bail hearings.
Another urgent concern is the practice of removing Aboriginal people accused of minor crimes from communities in the North to detention centres in the South. The National Council of Welfare recommends that governments use whatever methods are necessary, including video conferencing, to conduct bail hearings while the accused remains in the community.
On matters of sentencing, the report condemns the decisions of the federal Department of Justice and provincial and territorial legal aid administrations to deny legal representation to low-income people accused of minor criminal offences that do not normally bring sentences of imprisonment. A conviction on a first offense can have severe consequences in the longer term if the person gets into trouble with the law a second time. At the very least, first-time defendants should get legal assistance from paralegal personnel or law students. As well, all legal aid plans should perform studies to find out the proportion of defendants who are not represented and the consequences of their lack of representation.
It is not unusual to find wide disparities in the sentences different judges issue in very similar cases and to find identical sentences issued by different judges to very different offenders. The report supports the proposal of the Canadian Sentencing Commission to establish a permanent sentencing commission that would develop coherent sentencing guidelines.
The report also endorses the idea of a "day-fine system" already used in many other countries to ensure that people are not routinely imprisoned because of their inability to pay fines. Day fines are based both on the severity of an infraction and the offender's ability to pay.
The National Council of Welfare also urges governments to adopt a more sensible approach to minor juvenile offences. Minor offences are common among young people, especially young men, and giving them criminal records for youthful errors in judgement makes no sense at all.
The Council supports the approach of authorities in Quebec, which has by far the lowest rate of incarcerating young people of any province or territory. In particular, the Council supports the use of "diversion" as an alternative to jail for minor offenses. Diversion often involves alternatives such as community service.
Overall, the report is critical of authorities at all levels for their failure to correct the obvious shortcomings of the justice system.
"School boards that fail to teach non-violence respond to acts of violence by adopting 'zero tolerance' policies that send kids into the streets and eventually to jail. Municipal governments reluctant to increase unpopular taxes impose more and higher fines to raise revenue, sending to prison the poor who can't pay fines directly or by doing community work. Provincial governments constantly denounce crime and promise more police to produce safer streets. At the same time, their cutbacks to health, welfare and employment services throw more mentally ill, homeless families and unemployed youths into the streets, where they frighten local residents."
"The federal government is also part of the problem. While denouncing overincarceration and deploring Canada's record as a world leader in imprisoning young people, it increased jail populations by adopting more severe sentences and mandatory minimum jail provisions. Governments and political parties that are constantly promising largely futile or counterproductive anti-crime measures spread fear in the population by giving the impression that crime is widespread and growing in Canada. This is reinforced by sensationalist media coverage of
criminal events. It is no wonder that so many Canadians, especially seniors and women, are fearful and misinformed about crime."
The National Council of Welfare is a citizens' advisory group to the federal Minister of Human Resources Development.RECOMMENDATIONS FROM JUSTICE AND THE POOR
The National Council of Welfare recommends that all Canadian governments jointly develop and adopt a co-ordinated plan to prevent crime and to make the criminal justice system fairer and more efficient, with detailed steps and a timetable for implementation. This plan should contain steps to diminish reliance on ineffectual and often harmful criminal justice solutions in favour of more productive interventions such as family support programs and community youth activities and employment.
The National Council of Welfare supports the approach of Quebec provincial authorities toward minor youth crime, and recommends that all jurisdictions adopt a general policy of minimal police intervention except when absolutely necessary. This rules out overzealous policing and aggressive enforcement programs that target poor neighbourhoods.
The National Council of Welfare believes that ongoing multidisciplinary teams are needed to deal with the multiple problems of many street people who end up in the criminal justice system with substance abuse and mental health problems. We recommend the setting up of such teams wherever they are needed in Canada.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that all Canadian police forces be accountable to impartial independent review bodies that have the power to investigate and adjudicate on complaints by private citizens.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that provincial and territorial ministers responsible for criminal justice set up impartial, independent research projects to verify the effects of mandatory charge policies in cases of domestic assault, and adjust law enforcement policies if necessary in light of the results. This is an urgent matter that should be addressed as soon as possible.
The National Council of Welfare supports the adoption in all parts of Canada of the following recommendations made in 1995 by the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System:
a) that a police officer who arrests and detains a person be required to explain in writing why the person was not released; the officer in charge should counter-sign this statement;
b) that the accused be shown these reasons and be able to give a response, also recorded;
c) that these statements be given to Crown attorneys and defence lawyers at bail hearings; and
d) that a similar process be used when the police impose conditions on the release of an accused person, to explain why each condition is deemed necessary.
The National Council of Welfare supports the recommendation of the Commission on Systemic Racism asking legal aid authorities to hire bail interview officers to assist in the preparation of bail hearings. Legal aid plans should also ensure that all duty counsel who represent people at these hearings have experience in the field of criminal law and meet minimum standards for adequate performance.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that Canadian judges take the lead in setting up multidisciplinary research projects such as the ones undertaken at several U.S. courts to evaluate bail criteria, to develop well-thought-out policies about their use, and to examine the effects of granting bail with conditions.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that all provinces and territories establish and provide stable funding to bail supervision programs which can monitor accused people without a fixed residence who are on bail, and bail supervision hostels which can provide them with temporary housing if they need it.
The National Council of Welfare joins the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in recommending that provincial and territorial governments use whatever methods are necessary, including video conferencing, to conduct bail hearings with the accused remaining in the community where the offence was committed. The Council also recommends reducing the length of time spent in jail prior to bail hearings by holding these hearings seven days a week.
The National Council of Welfare condemns the practice of Crown prosecutors of automatically excluding accused people from alternative measures programs only because they are detained in jail until trial, since many are denied bail mostly because they are poor. The Council recommends that arrangements be made to make alternative measures programs available everywhere, and to ensure that all types of charges can be considered for diversion.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that the ministers responsible for criminal justice in the provinces and territories take whatever measures are necessary to increase the use of diversion in their jurisdictions to the point where their diversion rates will become similar to those of Quebec and of many industrialized nations.
The National Council of Welfare condemns the decisions of the federal Department of Justice and of legal aid administrations to deny legal representation to low-income people accused of minor criminal offences that do not normally bring sentences of imprisonment. At the very least, these defendants should get legal assistance from paralegal personnel or law students. As a first urgent step, all legal aid plans should perform studies to find out the proportion of defendants who are not represented and the consequences of their lack of representation.
The National Council of Welfare is appalled by the shocking disparities, the over-reliance on incarceration, and the lack of solid foundation of Canadian sentences, and it supports the proposal of the Canadian Sentencing Commission to establish a permanent sentencing commission that would examine these issues and develop coherent sentencing guidelines.
The National Council of Welfare asks all levels of government to co-operate in the preparation and publication of complete and recent data on all aspects of the criminal justice system, particularly on imprisonment for failure to pay a fine.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that all Canadian governments co-operate in setting up pilot projects on the use of a day fine system that would eventually apply to all fines imposed by all levels of government.
The National Council of Welfare recommends that the provinces and territories provide sufficient and ongoing funding to services in remote areas, bail support services, treatment programs, half-way houses and other services in order to provide equal treatment to low-income people in the criminal justice system and to maximize the chance that ex-offenders will stay out of the justice system in the future.
The National Council of Welfare denounces mandatory minimum sentences and asks that they be abolished as soon as possible for all offences except murder and high treason.
The National Council of Welfare deplores the federal government's lack of responsibility in adopting amendments to criminal laws that increase incarceration rates and make sentences harsher, more inconsistent and more unequal than before. As proposed by the Canadian Sentencing Commission, we recommend that the federal government formally commit itself to an integrated, coherent approach to sentences.
The National Council of Welfare urges Canadian governments and political parties to stop using crime as a political weapon. The reality is that Canada is one of the safest countries in the world.
The National Council of Welfare urges Canadian governments and political parties to be truthful about the limitations of the criminal justice system. The best ways to reduce crime are to help vulnerable parents, maintain a strong social safety net and ensure good jobs for young people.The National Council of Welfare is a citizens' advisory group to the Minister of Human Resources Development.
For more information or to arrange an interview, contact:
National Council of Welfare
9th Floor, 112 Kent Street
Ottawa K1A 0J9
Telephone: (613) 957-2961
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