Home Page News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Books Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In

Creating alternatives to the criminal justice system is key to reducing court delays

By Senator Kim Pate      

The inadequacy of social, economic and health programs have resulted in the use of the criminal system as a default response to issues that it is not designed to handle.

Marginalized individuals, contending with issues including prior victimization, impoverishment, homelessness, addictions, and disabling mental health issues too often end up criminalized and imprisoned, writes Independent Senator Kim Pate, who sits on the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Photograph courtesy of C.P.Storm
Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.

Earlier this month, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, of which I am a member, released its final report on the topic of court delays, entitled Delaying Justice Is Denying Justice: An Urgent Need to Address Lengthy Court Delays in Canada.

The report refers to some ways that creating alternatives to the criminal justice system can reduce court delays. I believe that this crucial point must be emphasized as a centerpiece of any strategy for addressing delays.

The inadequacy of social, economic and health programs have resulted in the use of the criminal system as a default response to issues that it is not designed to handle. Marginalized individuals, contending with issues including prior victimization, impoverishment, homelessness, addictions, and disabling mental health issues too often end up criminalized and imprisoned. The criminal and penal systems are the most expensive and least effective way of dealing with the lack of social, economic, educational and health services and supports. Moreover, overloading the courts with such matters further strains resources and exacerbates delays within the criminal justice system.

To counter this trend, I encourage Canada to pursue the development of national standards and resource arrangements that would enhance the capacity of provinces and territories to fund community-based health—especially mental health, education and social services—as well as economic supports. Moves such as those undertaken in Ontario to pilot guaranteed livable income is a step in the right direction. More of these responses—and not merely as pilots, are required to both address and prevent further marginalization, victimization, criminalization, and institutionalization of our population, particularly indigenous peoples, and most especially Indigenous women.

Measures such as specialized courts or diversion programs constitute an incomplete response to this problem notably because they too often function as “add-ons,” expanding the reach and scope of the criminal justice system, without changing the underlying, default criminal-law response to these issues. As a result, individuals end up criminalized nonetheless, drawn into the already overcrowded criminal justice system, for behaviors that are recognized as issues that might better be assisted in health, mental health, educational, or other community-based social services.

A similar problem occurs with respect to reforms that aim to respond to high rates of addiction or mental health issues among prisoners, whether they are awaiting trial or jailed following a conviction. Prisons are not, and should not be accepted as, alternatives to hospitals or other types of treatment centres. Nor are they shelters for those who are homeless, impoverished, or fleeing violence. On the surface, attempts to improve prison-based services seem laudable. Regrettably, as revealed during successive investigations, inquiries and inquests, such efforts have repeatedly proved unsuccessful. Worse still, there is some evidence that they have contributed to increased overcrowding and increased numbers of prisoners with mental health issues.

Instead of responding to these needs ineffectively through a system that is not designed to meet them, attention must be directed to keeping such individuals out of the criminal justice system. And for those who are already in the system, we must do all we are able to get them out of the system. This is particularly true for those who, like Ashley Smith, can end up criminalized and imprisoned for relatively minor charges, but whose mental health issues and resulting behaviour cause them to be further criminalized as they are unable to negotiate a system that causes them to accumulate convictions and sentences.

Although shamefully restricted by policy and therefore too rarely used, the federal Corrections and Conditional Release Act contains mechanisms that would serve this purpose. For instance, section 29 allows prisoners with mental health issues or addictions to be transferred to provincial health institutions in order to receive treatment. For indigenous prisoners in particular, section 81 provides for communities to sponsor prisoners to serve sentences in the community. And, section 84 of the Act allows for communities to sponsor those who are conditionally released into the community.

There is an urgent need, as noted in the Committee’s report, for the federal government to follow through on its promise to implement the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The reality that women, particularly indigenous women and those with disabling mental health issues, are the fastest growing prison population in Canada necessitates such steps be made toward redressing and remedying the historical wrongs that have contributed this situation.

Rather than continuing to feed an overburdened and struggling criminal justice system, we can and we must reinvigorate and invest in the services and systems that will prevent the further marginalization, victimization, criminalization, and incarceration of Canadians. We can and must reinvest monies in economic, social, educational and health resources. The millions of dollars saved by closing prison cells can and should be used to ensure all are housed, fed and educated. Countries with the best social service, health and educational supports tend to have the highest standards of living and lowest crime rates. In Canada’s sesquicentennial, let’s set our sights higher for all.

Politics This Morning

Get the latest news from The Hill Times

Politics This Morning

Your email has been added. An email has been sent to your address, please click the link inside of it to confirm your subscription.
More in News

‘Underdog’ NDP in Outremont faces ‘hard battle’ to keep ex-leader’s seat: NDP analysts

NDP candidate Julia Sánchez says she has a good campaign team in Montreal, and isn’t losing out on party resources focused on leader Jagmeet Singh's byelection race in B.C.

Federal Court of Appeal sides with BOIE against NDP in satellite-office battle

NDP MPs had been ordered to repay roughly $4-million by the Board of Internal Economy, which they've already started repaying though they've been fighting it in court for five years.

Butts’ exit could help government wield more effective defence strategy in SNC-Lavalin affair, politicos say

News|By Beatrice Paez
Gerald Butts has removed himself from the daily political grind of strategizing how to keep the Liberals in power. But observers say it's unlikely he will be consigned to watch the campaign unfold from the sidelines.

Hill reporters push back against lack of access to MPs in West Block

‘For a reporter, this is terrible,' says CBC's Julie Van Dusen. Two suggestions for new scrum spots were rejected, but talks to find a solution continue.

Perception a problem with retired Supreme Court justices involved in the ‘highly partisan’ SNC-Lavalin affair, say some court watchers

Jody Wilson-Raybould’s hiring of Thomas Cromwell as counsel is ‘good for the client, good for the PMO, good for Canada,’ says a Supreme Court specialist.

Nearly two-thirds of public servants have unresolved pay issues three years after Phoenix launched, survey shows

Results from the 2018 Public Service Employee Survey also indicate harassment stats in the public service are relatively flat despite a PCO push for change.

Criminal charges raises spectre of SNC-Lavalin takeover, but feds’ $180-billion infrastructure plan can find other builders, experts say

News|By Jolson Lim
SNC-Lavalin risks a takeover if it's convicted. But aside from likely outrage in Quebec, Ottawa can find other builders for its infrastructure plans if the company is banned from bidding on federal contracts, experts say

SNC-Lavalin lobbied Liberal-tied ambassador on corruption case, sought help from ex-aides to Chrétien, Mulroney

The Quebec company had extensive access to government ministers and top staffers, and was the only organization registered to lobby for allowing deferred prosecution agreements for white collar crimes.

‘They have to pick a lane, it’s really quite strange’: Trudeau needs a consistent communication strategy on SNC-Lavalin, Wilson-Raybould resignation controversy

News|By Abbas Rana
The SNC-Lavalin affair is yet another example of self-inflicted wounds for the Justin Trudeau Liberals, says pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.