Opinion: Critics weigh in as federal correctional investigator says, figures show number of jailed First Nations people has reached historic highs
After 48 years of criminal defence work and advocacy for prisoners’ rights, Abbotsford lawyer John Conroy was staggered at the new numbers revealing the swelling tide of Indigenous people being kept locked up.
“I started practising in 1972 and I’m 72 years old,” he said. “How can things be worse? But they are. Here we are in 2020 and it’s worse than ever. I do not understand with the amount of attention and amount of information we have that we’re still in this situation.”
The appalling statistics suggest a modern, racially divided Bedlam.
Conroy pointed out “73 per cent of the men and 80 per cent of the women have the criteria for qualifying for a current mental disorder, 29 require follow-up with mental health services, 25 per cent have some kind of cognitive deficit, 10 to 23 per cent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), acquired brain injuries … it goes on and on and on.”
Indigenous people constitute less than five per cent of the population yet now they account for one-in-three of the men in jail, more than four of 10 incarcerated women.
On the Prairies, the numbers are worse — more than seven out of 10 are Aboriginal.
In 2017-18, Aboriginal adults represented three-quarters of admissions to custody in Manitoba (75 per cent) and Saskatchewan (74 per cent). Those provinces also have the highest proportion of Aboriginals, 15 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.
Compared to 2007-08, admissions of Aboriginal males increased the most in B.C. (83 per cent), from 3,932 to 7,181.
Decades of well-meaning Indigenous legal policies have produced the opposite of what was intended — increasing incarceration rivenrac by racism — a visible disconnect between years of compassionate rhetoric and hard-hearted practice.
Abbotsford lawyer John Conroy: ‘There are judges who are sending these people to prison and they seem to be disproportionately sending them to prison compared with non-Aboriginal people.’ HANDOUT
Having an Indigenous federal attorney general didn’t help — the numbers went up on Jody Wilson-Raybould’s watch as well.
The shocking report by the country’s correctional investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, asserts that the number and proportion of imprisoned Indigenous individuals has reached historic highs.
Providing independent oversight of the Correctional Service of Canada, with some 19,000 full-time employees and 53 institutions, Zinger says Indigenous custody rates have accelerated!
“The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty,” Zinger added.
Since April 2010 the Indigenous inmates have increased by 43.4 per cent (or 1,265), whereas the non-Indigenous incarcerated population has declined by 13.7 per cent (or 1,549).
“There are judges who are sending these people to prison and they seem to be disproportionately sending them to prison compared with non-Aboriginal people,” Conroy noted. “Why are so many being sentenced to prison?”
Year after year, Zinger has documented that Indigenous inmates are disproportionately classified and placed in maximum security institutions, over-represented in use of force and self-injurious incidents, and historically were more likely to be placed and held longer in solitary.
Indigenous offenders serve a higher proportion of their sentence behind bars before being granted parole.
Worse, a national recidivism study shows it doesn’t help — Indigenous offenders reoffend at much higher levels, as high as 70 per cent on the Prairies.
When you look at the cases coming down the pipe, it isn’t hopeful.
Numbers from the Legal Services Society of B.C. indicate Indigenous people account for about one-in-three legal aid criminal cases and about one in four in family cases before the courts.
For some reason, in spite of all the hopeful and aspirational rhetoric, legal stakeholders refuse to recognize the reality of Indigenous Canada or the circumstances in which many Aboriginal people live.
“When you read the facts of the case, you can’t help but shake your head and say this guy never had a chance,” Conroy said.
A fundamental problem is that few native communities have the resources, the infrastructure or the capacity to handle violent offenders, so it’s very difficult for them to make a claim in court that they shouldn’t be jailed or argue for early release.
As a result, more and more Aboriginal men are “banished” across Canada — a medieval punishment legally meted out by Indigenous communities to keep away members it cannot control.
Similarly, detailed accounts ordered by the Supreme Court of Canada on the effects of colonialism and the social-economic circumstances of an Aboriginal offender — so-called Gladue Reports — are seen by some Indigenous advocates as valuable tools to assist judges in crafting appropriate sentences but in the prison bureaucracy they can be detrimental.
A report showing a history or prevalence of violence can cause a minor offender to be sent to a maximum instead of medium institution.
“Over my 25 years dealing with prison law, I have seen a big change from focus on helping a prisoner rehabilitate to managing potential PR problems,” veteran Vancouver defence lawyer Donna Turko said.
Various concerns are in play, she explained — judges can’t be too easy on violent offenders as native communities need protection, too, sentencing circles and diversion-style programs are scarce and parole boards seem increasingly afraid of public opinion and reluctant to release offenders.
Mostly, though, a shadow has always fallen between the rhetoric about and the reality of Aboriginal crime.
Consider a case in central B.C. involving an older native man who endured residential school and became a dysfunctional alcoholic living off the land. One day, he got very, very drunk and shot a woman.
He spent months in pre-trial custody, went in-custody alcohol treatment, took counselling training and, while out on bail for more than two years, acted as a counsellor in his community.
But he is facing a mandatory minimum sentence of four years and the Crown wants six years in a federal pen.
Instead, the defence wants a provincial sentence of less than two years with an additional conditional term in the community — that way he would be incarcerated close to his family, not shipped somewhere across the country.
Which will have a better outcome for the individual, which for the community?
If your aim is to punish and exact a measure of vengeance, a six-year term makes some sense — but if it’s long-term healthier citizens and communities, well …
“Bold and urgent” action is needed, Zinger said.
People such as Conroy have been ardently arguing that since the 1970s. It obviously hasn’t mattered. SOURCE