Friday, January 4, 2019

Outlook for criminalization and punishment in 2019

by Justin Piché (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)

2018 was a year where those engaged in the politics of promoting criminalization and punishment successfully rolled-back reforms and stopped others dead in their tracks that, if enacted, had the potential to constrain penal power. In 2019, those working towards divesting from, and reinvesting the resources currently devoured by, the 'criminal justice' system will need to contend with these "carceral clawbacks" and other key issues outlined below that'll likely garner considerable political attention this year in Ontario and/or across Canada.

How many people need to die before 
Canadians on mass demand an end to drug prohibition?

Despite the 'legalization' of recreational marijuana, 2018 brought considerable pain to those fighting for compassion and care with and for drug users in Canada. Last year, people continued to needlessly die of opioid overdoses by the thousands as those in power refused to end the failure that's drug prohibition or even take the modest step of decriminalizing simple possession of prohibited drugs so that individuals don't consume unregulated substances (sometimes spiked with fentanyl) in hiding. The latter approach has shown to improve public health and community safety when accompanied by more investments in harm reduction and treatment. Worse still, some politicians like new Ontario Premier Doug Ford think it's a good idea to erect more red tape to restrict harm reduction capacity, while adding burdensome reporting requirements at a time when more resources, not paperwork, are needed.

As more and more stories of how drug prohibition kills and harm reduction saves lives hit closer to home for an increasing amount of Canadians, let 2019 be the year where municipal, provincial and territorial, and federal governments finally acquiesce to legitimate demands to end the costly and ineffective war on drugs, which above all else is "a war on people". The senseless carnage needs to stop.

More policing money shakedowns to come?

In capitalist societies, both private and public entities are wired for growth. While companies often problematically turn to contraction when financial booms turn to busts, a cycle which is endemic to our economic order, 'criminal justice' entities are often very adept at managing crises (e.g. financial, reputational, etc.) that would see their role in a given society shift or shrink in ways that would translate into resources being lost. In fact, historically, they're masters at neutralizing attempts to enact fundamental reforms coming from inside and outside their organizations, while managing to convince governments that more is better even as they continually fail meet the stated objectives that legitimate their existence.

In 2018, we witnessed this dynamic play-out when police forces demanded more money and resources to enforce the 'legalization' of recreational marijuana. Given the vast amount of resources dedicated to and wasted on law enforcement activities associated with the war on drugs, it's difficult to fathom how a legalization regime can translate into greater policing costs (perhaps we're doing it wrong?). Yet, we've managed to do it. Heads (illegal) or tails (legal) - they win.

As communities historically targeted by police seek to end the systemic repression they face, the trade-off to get law enforcement entities to acquiesce is more policing. The question is, when it comes to matters of social justice like ending the racist practice of carding, should governments and the people they claim to represent accept policing money shakedowns in 2019? Should we also accept the proposition that police forces require bigger budgets so that they can 'get more boots on the ground' and increase capacity for 'community policing' when "it has not been proven to reduce crime"? Shouldn't we be spending this money on ensuring that all communities are adequately resourced so that the basic needs of their residents (i.e. housing, food, education, health and mental health care, etc.) are met?

If "everyone across the province will be required to make sacrifices",
how will Ontario's jails and prisons be impacted?

While on the campaign trail, then Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford promised that he'd end the "party" with "taxpayers' money" if elected, but offered few clues about how this would be achieved. After roughly half a year in office, Ontarians are getting a glimpse of what Premier Ford and his team have in store "for the people" - service and benefits cuts for the masses and policies to line the pockets of the rich. Such measures were sold by Finance Minister Vic Fedeli during the release of the Fall 2018 economic update as "sacrifices" born by all.

What government austerity will mean for prisoners and staff in Ontario's jails and prisons isn't yet clear. Will they follow the Stephen Harper conservatives who during their time on Parliament Hill expanded the federal governments capacity to imprison at a great cost, while making conditions of confinement more austere? Will they follow the Mike Harris conservatives who during their time at Queen's Park enacted a 'no frills' regime of incarceration as part of a broader strategy to discipline workers and the poor to expect lower living standards in Ontario, while testing the jail privatization waters? Will they follow the Ralph Klein conservatives in Alberta (circa mid-1990s), who turned to decarceration measures as a means of reducing government expenditure?

In 2019, we should begin to have answers on this front. No matter the direction taken, it's essential to build bridges between the people inside and outside of Ontario's jails and prisons in order to work towards reducing the province's reliance on imprisonment, while improving living and working conditions for all.

Build communities or cages?

Among the decisions that the Ford government will make in 2019 is whether to follow through with the Wynne government's plan to build bigger jails to replace existing ones in Ottawa and Thunder Bay. While the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services had indicated this past fall that the projects were moving forward, as news of cuts to benefits and services in Ontario were rolled-out the webpage updating the public on the status of carceral expansion in the province was removed (see image below).

As the cuts keep coming, Premier Ford and his team will have to decide whether they can defend a wasteful plan "for the people" that includes expanding the means to cage more of us when there are plenty of reasons not to do so, and better alternatives to enhance community well-being and safety.

Is there a future for solitary confinement in Ontario and in Canada?

Since the October 2007 preventable death of Ashley Smith in a segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ontario came to light, there's been on-going scrutiny of the barbaric practice of solitary confinement.  While ardent proponents of this form of torture have denied the victimization endured by those who've experience it and defended the status quo, others have demanded changes ranging from placing limits on who can be segregated and the amount of time one can spend in 'the hole' to its abolition, full-stop.

In Ontario, legal action related to the prolonged isolation of Christina Jahn at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and media scrutiny associated with the segregation of Adam Capay for over 1,500 days at the Thunder Bay Jail were central to the Wynne government introducing and passing legislation that included placing limits on the use of solitary confinement in its jails and prisons. The law has yet to be proclaimed into force by the Lieutenant Governor and is collecting dust on Premier Ford's desk. What the Premier will do remains a mystery, but in the meantime the use of segregation in the province is once again climbing.

With court cases in British Columbia and Ontario determining the constitutionality of solitary confinement at the federal level, the Trudeau government engaged in legal manoeuvring in defence of the status quo at the same time that it introduced legislation in June 2017 that, among other things, proposed placing limits on the practice. The federal government lost both cases and the June 2017 bill was subsequently shelved, only to be followed by the introduction of new legislation in October 2018 that proponents claim will "eliminate segregation". Even as new legislation was brought forward, the federal government's legal manoeuvring continued in an apparent effort to buy themselves more time.

As has been noted elsewhere, the proposed law will likely fall well-short of ending segregation if enacted as-is. With the clock ticking on the federal government, who has until 30 April 2019 to put in place measures to remedy the issues flagged in the Ontario court ruling, change is coming. If the Trudeau government is sincere in wanting to end solitary confinement, my advice to them is to get Coralee Smith (who has been a leading advocate on the matter since the death of her daughter Ashley in a federal penitentiary more than a decade ago) on the phone and provide her with the opportunity to get involved in amending Bill C-83 to ensure it's positioned to accomplish its stated aims, while neutralizing those who wish to preserve the draconian status quo. As the Liberals in Ottawa should know all too well after sitting in political obscurity during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's lengthy tenure in office, when 'criminal justice' reforms are introduced with the support of victims connected to high-profile deaths, it's difficult to muster an effective defence of existing arrangements.

The "other death penalty" olympics - 2019 federal election edition?

As if they're both helpless in the matter, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer are expecting the 2019 federal election campaign to "get nasty". After all, how else can you distinguish yourself from your opponent when you're both situated in the "extreme centre" where you and your opponents, more often than not, champion policies that facilitate the intensification of wealth accumulation in the hands of few, while distracting and selling-out everyday people who put you in office?

Enter the "other death penalty" olympics - 2019 federal election edition? Who can be crueller to those that are collectively denounced for engaging in the cruellest of acts? Who can ratchet-up the deprivations of imprisonment they face to match just how little we now value freedom, which has become taken for granted to the point that removing it from others, in and of itself, is never enough? Who can be 'tougher' in the face of the 'worst of the worst' (as if it is easier to show humanity to those who've trespassed against us than it is to dehumanize and degrade them)? Who can import more policies enacted elsewhere that have failed to make communities safer in the name of 'public safety'?

With the 'faint hope' clause gone for all and parole eligibility having become a fiction for some because we allowed ourselves to get drawn into setting public policy in response to the horrors perpetrated by the likes of Clifford Olson and other exceptionally rare and sadistic individuals, we effectively have a death by incarceration penalty in this country. Given that the average time spent behind bars for murder in Canada is now much lengthier in comparison to (a) when state executions were still allowable in 1976 or (b) what we see in many other comparable jurisdictions, what would it say about us all if we continue to allow ourselves to be led down this road where 'healing lodges' aren't prisons and medium-security penitentiaries are 'luxurious'? If we deny any semblance of humanity to others, deny that people can and do often change for the better, we deny ourselves of the same.

Perhaps Canadians will be spared from such corrosive political brinksmanship during the next federal election campaign. However, the opportunity for mudslinging might be too tempting for Liberal and Conservative politicians who've spent the past few months assigning blame to each other and defending themselves for how people convicted of murdering children like Victoria Stafford cascaded through the federal penitentiary system during their respective times in government.

Instead of engaging in one-upmanship, our political leaders should work together to ensure adequate investments are made in proven measures to prevent victimization and to ensure capacity exists to meet the needs of those impacted by interpersonal violence to the degree that's possible through tried-and-tested approaches such as restorative justice (note: federal government spending on prevention, victims services and restorative justice comes nowhere near the roughly $2.5 billion it costs to operate and manage its penitentiaries).

Canadians deserve pathways to peace. However, if the past offers a glimpse into the future, we're more likely to receive additional pathways to vengeance that foster anger and seed division, which is exactly what those who ascend to political power need for the morally bereft neoliberal capitalist order that lines their pockets and those of their wealthy benefactors to continue. With the future of my children and our planet at stake, in 2019, I hope I'm proven wrong.

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