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Justice system needs to change so it hurts fewer people, author says

Author Benjamin Perrin recently released “Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial” and presented the book’s findings during the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan’s recent provincial conference in Moose Jaw.
Author Benjamin Perrin (right) signs one of his books for Jody Oakes, director of the John Howard Society office in Moose Jaw, during the organization's provincial conference at the Grant Hotel. Photo by Jason G. Antonio

With Canada’s justice system causing more harm than good for some people, a university professor is suggesting several ways to transform the system so it’s less punitive and more rehabilitative. 

Author Benjamin Perrin recently released “Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial” and presented the book’s findings during the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan’s recent provincial conference in Moose Jaw.

Perrin noted that this new transformative justice vision emphasizes proactive harm prevention and uses evidence-based and compassionate approaches to serve victims, offenders and communities better. This would help break cycles of harm and trauma.

These approaches can also lead to lower rates of reoffending, higher levels of satisfaction for victims and survivors and save millions of dollars for criminal justice, health care and child welfare, he continued. Based on interviews, he determined that one repeat offender could cost the justice system $5 million over the years and decades. 

“So my favourite response on social media when someone says, ‘We should just lock ’em all up and throw away the key’ … is, ‘Get out your chequebook,’” he added. 

Transformational ideas

Perrin offered six ideas that could make communities safer and healthier and cost much less than the current approaches.

Preventing childhood trauma

Communities and social agencies should work to prevent adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to ensure babies, infants and toddlers aren’t harmed and don’t carry that trauma into adulthood, either psychologically or physically, said Perrin. 

The author referred to the success of a long-term nurse-family partnership program in British Columbia, where health-care professionals offer support and resources to families with young kids. 

A randomized control trial followed some youths from the program until age 15 and found they had a 79-per-cent reduction in maltreatment, a 56-per-cent decline in arrests and an 81-per-cent drop in criminal convictions. 

“I describe this as preventing crime today and preventing the crimes of tomorrow today,” said Perrin, noting the program saved families $18,000 in justice-related costs.

Public health approach

Taking a public health approach includes a liveable wage, a safe home and a full fridge, which would reduce the chances of someone offending or becoming a victim, the professor said. 

Furthermore, giving people the necessities of life would ensure they don’t experience ACEs since they would live longer and have happier lives. 

Perrin pointed out that, for someone with a mental illness bouncing in and out of court and jail, the cost per month to help that person is $30,000 for hospital, $15,000 for jail, $5,000 for shelters and $2,500 for supportive housing. 

Therefore, poverty, homelessness, mental health and substance use should be solved through other avenues besides the court system because society can’t police its way out of these problems, he added.

24/7 non-police mobile crisis response

Similar to the Moose Jaw Police Service’s Police and Crisis Team (PACT) initiative, Eugene, Oregon, has a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), said Perrin. 

These specially trained civilian mobile crisis teams respond to 15 to 20 per cent of 911 and non-emergency police calls — about 28,000 calls — about people experiencing mental illness or who are intoxicated, homeless, require a ride to the laundromat or need a coffee and sandwich. 

CAHOOTS takes a trauma-informed approach to healing wounds and has proven to be effective and compassionate, said Perrin. Therefore, this program can be replicated in other communities, regardless of size.

This program is particularly needed when officers respond to mental health calls because 68 per cent of people who died in police encounters in 2020 had a mental illness, substance issue problem or intellectual disability, the professor continued. 

He noted that the way police respond to situations — usually with force — aggravates situations instead of de-escalating them, which means it’s not just a “few bad apples” causing deaths.

“The system is perfectly designed to get the results it’s getting,” Perrin remarked. 

Restorative justice

Society and the courts should use restorative justice — which provides opportunities for safe and voluntary dialogue between victims/survivors, offenders and communities — to solve situations if the parties are willing, while the courts should defer more to what victims/survivors want for an outcome, said Perrin. 

Through restorative justice, research shows there is more satisfaction among victims/survivors and offenders, more compliance by offenders with court orders and decreased reoffending, he added.

Rehabilitation and housing

Restorative justice can work for some people who commit “horrible” crimes, but for those who must be separated from society, the justice system should adopt a prison model from Norway, said Perrin.

Halden Prison is one of the most innovative and humane prisons worldwide since it prioritizes rehab and healing and has decreased recidivism from 70 per cent to 20 per cent, he continued. 

The prison cells are similar to university dorm rooms, while offenders can play beach volleyball with their contact officers — guards — and can access a park. 

While some people may think Perrin is “soft on crime” and wants to “hug a thug,” he noted that “with jail, we fail.” 

“We have to get a lot better as people who are concerned about these issues and about compassionate, evidence-based policies and communicating them … ,” he said.

Perrin suggested politicians could first use this prison-type approach with youths — they “should not be locked in cages” —since it’s a “political slam dunk” and the public supports children. The government should then close all youth jails and open healing lodges for high-risk youths. 

Intervening early in youths’ lives would disrupt their journeys as adults to prisons, which could lead to closing jails instead of opening more, the author said, adding there should be a moratorium on building more prisons and remand centres. 

Indigenous justice

With 80 per cent of people in jail being indigenous, it’s not possible to trust the Canadian justice system since it’s a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing and nothing changes, said Perrin. It also doesn’t matter how “good” police are since they are still locking up First Nations people at high rates.

Instead, there should be more indigenous-led peacekeeping and healing lodges on reserves, which have helped reduce crime rates and recidivism by 25 per cent and fostered a greater sense of safety, he continued. 

Society should also empower reserves to take control of law enforcement on their lands since that leads to better outcomes and costs much less than government-run institutions, Perrin added.

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