- Lewis Waring
Will Bill C-22 Bring Changes to Systemic Racism Within the Criminal Justice System? - Anonymous
The federal government has recently introduced Bill C-22 in an effort to tackle some systemic racism within the criminal justice system. Bill C-22, if enacted, will require the police and prosecutors to consider diversion to treatment programs or other alternatives to laying charges. These changes are being considered to reduce low-risk and first-time offenders from being harshly punished. Often, these low-risk offenders come from Black and Indigenous communities and, by diverting these offenders rather than laying charges, it will allow for low-risk individuals to get social assistance rather than jail time and a criminal record. These consequences are often detrimental and have a huge impact on the future of these individuals, including struggling to obtain employment or getting assistance with substance abuse. Notably, these changes do not remove low-level drug crimes from the Criminal Code (“the Code”) but merely create another channel for the justice system to be a “gateway to treatment”. The question comes down to whether these proposed changes will lead to any sort of beneficial changes in the criminal justice system.
Currently, there are over 10 million people incarcerated worldwide with 1 in 5 of those being incarcerated on drug offences. More than 50% of individuals who are sentenced are less than 35 years old. Drug use among young people has been increasing for decades, showing a distinct change from it being strictly limited to “sketchy” subcultures towards a normal part of everyday life. Using drugs has become integrated into typically conforming lifestyles, even so far as being marketed for healthcare benefits. Normalization has led to a number of beneficial changes through means such as harm reduction and decriminalization. The most widely used drug in the world is cannabis. It has a relatively low risk of its use becoming problematic, however, using cannabis tends to start from a young age. For this post, I will focus on cannabis and how it relates to criminalization and mandatory minimum sentencing. Cannabis has been legalized in Canada; however, this is only one of numerous drugs that carries mandatory minimum sentencing. Many individuals still remain incarcerated on cannabis-related offences.
Cannabis was only legalized in Canada a few years ago, so mandatory minimums were a part of the sentencing scheme until recently. More than half (53%) of police-reported offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act were cannabis-related and the majority (74%) of those offences were for possession. Seeing as part of the rationale for Bill C-22 was to tackle systemic racism, it is important to look at the social determinants that lead to drug use and sometimes subsequent charges. With youths, peer networks often determine the initial and current use of cannabis. Adolescents take cues from their friends on what is socially acceptable to take part in, and their friends often hold significant influence. Another important social determinant of adolescent use is family. Many different familial situations can have a significant effect on children, including but not limited to parental supervision, familial communication, and family socio-emotional problems. Disrupted families had a significantly higher percentage (67%) of adolescent cannabis use than families that were intact. The more damaged the familial relationships, the more likely for there to be cannabis use.
Socio-economic status may also play a role in the adolescent use of cannabis use, the literature has mixed reviews. A meta-data analysis, however, showed that those who reported a low socio-economic status were 22% more likely to engage in risky cannabis behaviours.
Based on the 2016 Census, 20.8% of the visible minority population showed prevalence of low-income status. More than 1 in 5 visible minorities has reported low socio-economic status, which has been reported to lead to higher levels of behavioural difficulties, such as delinquent behaviour and illicit drug use. 70% of children living in a single-mother household are low-income. It is also more difficult for families of low socioeconomic status to promote and maintain a strong parent-child bond, which can lead to the familial disruptions as discussed above. If we consider that it is visible minorities that take up a significant portion of those who are of low socio-economic status, and the ‘delinquent’ results of growing up in a low socio-economic situation, it is arguable that there is a link between visible minorities and drug charges.
These statistics are relevant and part of a larger conversation that needs to happen surrounding minorities, socioeconomic status, and drug charges. While the intentions of Bill C-22 have been introduced to repeal mandatory minimums to tackle some systemic racism, it is clear to professionals in the criminal justice system that this will do very little good. While Bill C-22 states that police should divert away from criminal charges, there are no consequences if an officer refuses to divert. Federal prosecutors are already encouraged to consider diverting minor drug offences, so this change is not a change at all. The most beneficial change coming from this Bill is the mandatory minimums that will be repealed from some drug offences. This may be a harsh critique but that is because there is considerable room for improvement at the legislative level.