Baranyai: We must fight against the “indigenization” of Canadian prisons


As Ontario braces for a “tsunami” of COVID-19 hospitalizations driven by the highly contagious variant of Omicron, it is difficult to focus on far beyond the immediate fallout from canceled medical procedures, staff crises and another rush to support online learning.

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As Ontario braces for a “tsunami” of COVID-19 hospitalizations driven by the highly contagious variant of Omicron, it is difficult to focus on far beyond the immediate fallout from canceled medical procedures, staff crises and another rush to support online learning.

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With all eyes on the looming disaster, another rising tide is quietly approaching a devastating high tide. Indigenous women now make up almost half of inmates in federal prisons, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, reported in December.

As with Omicron’s trajectory, we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

Zinger’s office has been sounding the alarm bells for years. The crisis is not confined to women either. Six years ago, the Federal Prisons Ombudsman said 25 percent of all federal inmates were Indigenous – one in four – when they made up only five percent of the Canadian population.

Four years later, the proportion of indigenous prisoners had exceeded 30 percent, setting a new all-time high. Zinger called the “indigenization” of Canadian prisons a “national parody”. He also called on the Correctional Service of Canada to realign its priorities and resources, “to reduce readmissions and readmissions, better prepare Indigenous offenders to meet early parole eligibility dates and return Indigenous offenders to their home community in a more secure manner ”.

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The Supreme Court recognized that the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons was a “crisis” in 1999. The court ruled in the landmark R. v Gladue case, sentencing judges must consider the impacts of colonialism, such as than residential schools and child welfare. system, on Aboriginal offenders.

In its 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada detailed several calls to action to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in detention, including alternatives to imprisonment. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls amplified these calls for justice, including more culturally appropriate Indigenous-led rehabilitation programs and the creation of a Deputy Commissioner for Corrections indigenous.

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Meanwhile, the reality has only gotten worse. The decline in incarceration rates for non-Aboriginal people is offset by the increase in the number of Aboriginal inmates. Successive governments and courts have failed to resolve the problem.

One of the problems is the lack of judicial discretion in sentencing. The Harper government had a particular affection for mandatory minimum sentences, which bring consistency to criminal sentences to the detriment of responding to the individual circumstances of each offender.

Mandatory minimum sentences have long been criticized for their disproportionate impact on racialized populations. Many mandatory minimum sentences introduced under Stephen Harper were subsequently found to be unconstitutional.

Justice Minister David Lametti said the policies of the former government “did not deter crime or make our justice system more efficient or fairer.” All the approach has done is jail too many aboriginal, black and marginalized Canadians.

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There are 67 mandatory minimum sentences in the Criminal Code, reports CBC, for crimes ranging from murder and sexual offenses to impaired driving. A law recently introduced by the federal government would reduce 14 minimum sentences for certain firearms and tobacco offenses. Bill C-5 would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The bill reflects a Liberal bill introduced last February, which died on the Order Paper when the election was called.

In response to Zinger’s report, Lametti called Bill C-5 “an important step in addressing the disturbing statistics in the Correctional Investigator’s Report.” Some senators are calling for amendments to give sentencing judges more leeway to waive mandatory minimum sentences when they perpetuate systemic racism or cause injustice.

It will take sustained attention and political will to reverse this devastating trend. We saw it coming. We cannot allow this to continue.

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