Four stories, each with two paths
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Despite its strong foundation, Canada’s criminal justice system has much room for improvement. Various inefficiencies and shortcomings have resulted in a system that breeds criminal behavior and repeat offenders, and keeps victims and survivors from healing and moving on with their lives.
Many people enter the criminal justice system despite never being exposed to the root causes usually associated with the crimes they commit.
Impaired driving cases
- Alcohol is a factor in 40% of deaths from vehicle crashesFootnote 1
- 10% of adult court cases in 2014/2015 involved impaired drivingFootnote 2
- 23% of cases in 2014/2015 took longer than 1 year to completeFootnote 3
- 1/6 of accused persons in 2014/2015 had been previously accused in another impaired driving case in the last 10 yearsFootnote 4
- In 2015, there were more than 72,000 incidents of impaired drivingFootnote 5
- Stable upbringing
- Middle-upper class
- No previous criminal record
- Married to Ellie
- Has two year old daughter, Michelle
After losing his job, David turns to alcohol to help cope with his anxiety and depression.
After a night out with friends, he is arrested for impaired driving.
David’s court case is delayed several times due to administrative reasons. He misses work at his new job, loses wages and cannot pay his bills. His anxiety and depression get worse and it takes an emotional toll on David’s wife Ellie and puts a heavy strain on their relationship. Due to the level of stress in the home, Michelle also begins exhibiting signs of anxiety and develops behavioral problems.
David’s alcohol addiction soon worsens, making him more likely to re-offend.
In a transformed justice system, David’s case would be heard in a timelier manner, and if found guilty, would allow him to serve his sentence and get his life back on track as quickly as possible. Through a criminal justice system that is integrated with other social systems, he would also receive the support he needs to deal with his mental health and substance abuse issues. All of which would make David much less likely to re-offend.
Charlie and Ava's story
Inefficiencies in the justice system can lead to some cases being thrown out of court for a variety of reasons. This can have a serious impact on the safety of a community and the well-being of victims.
Organized crime cases
15% of homicide incidents are committed for the benefit of organized crimeFootnote 6
- Born into family with ties to organized crime
- History of violence
- Charged for assault several times as a youth
- Placed in foster system as a young child
- Ran away at age 15, lives in shelter
- History of substance abuse
Charlie is a career criminal, having been involved in organized crime from a very young age. He meets 18-year-old Ava and begins grooming her. Ava is drawn to his powerful personality, and falls in love with him.
After a few months, Charlie begins to force Ava to have sex with men who have paid him. Charlie becomes emotionally and physically abusive and threatens her if she tries to leave him. He leaves her with no money, and isolates her. He is eventually arrested and charged with sex trafficking. The gang he is involved with pays for his legal representation and Charlie is expected to reimburse his debts by continuing to be involved in their activities.
Charlie’s case is legally complex and requires many adjournments. After three years of waiting to proceed to trial, Charlie applies for a stay on the basis that his Charter right to be tried within a reasonable time has been violated. The court agrees and stays the charges permanently.
Ava is left emotionally scarred by her victimization and does not feel like justice has been served – she has not had her day in court and her confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined. She is unable to pursue an education or get a job and lives in constant terror of retaliation from Charlie and members from his gang.
With a transformed court system, there would also be more time and resources to focus on serious offenders like Charlie. A transformed justice system will help ensure serious offenders are held accountable for their crimes and the public is protected. If there is no stay and a trial is held, and Charlie is convicted, victims like Ava could be provided with a better sense of security, knowing that those who have victimized them are in custody, and services would be available to help ensure she is able to properly heal and move on with her life.
For far too many people, their odds of becoming involved with the justice system are much higher than average based on a variety of circumstances they cannot control. Widespread failures across multiple areas ensure that these people have little chance to lead a life that does not involve crime or victimization, let alone one that is prosperous.
- Indigenous female
- Born into poverty
- Mother is survivor of residential schools and copes with alcohol addiction
- Did not finish high school
- Unable to secure steady employment
- Witnessed criminal behavior by family members from a young age
- Has to take care of sister and mother
To cope with the many stresses in her life, Denise turns to drugs and alcohol. On her way home after a night of partying, Denise decides to let off some steam by breaking the window of a local business. The act is caught on a surveillance camera, and Denise is arrested and charged with mischief.
Text version – Indigenous people in Canada: Bigger Picture
|Social inequality||Indigenous population||Non-Indigenous population|
|No high school diploma||29%||12%|
|Living in home in need of major repair||22%||7%|
|Living in crowded homes||11%||4%|
|Victims of violent crime||9%||4%|
- Statistics Canada. 2015. Aboriginal Peoples: Fact Sheet for Canada.
- Statistics Canada. 2015. Aboriginal Statistics at a Glance: 2nd Edition.
- Fact Sheet - 2011 National Household Survey Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Aboriginal Demographics, Educational Attainment and Labour Market Outcomes.
- Boyce, Jillian. 2016. Victimization of Aboriginal people in Canada, 2014. Statistics Canada.
|Homicide victims||Rate per 100,000|
Source: Statistics Canada, Homicide Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.
Denise is found guilty and sentenced to probation. One night, she has to pick up her mother who has been drinking heavily at a friend’s. While she is gone, officers do a curfew check and she is charged with failing to comply with the curfew condition in her probation order.
Later, she misses a court appearance because the courthouse is in another town and her ride fell through at the last minute.
Denise’s minor charge quickly snowballs into a series of administrative offences. Soon, she is stuck in a revolving door and unable to lead any semblance of a productive life. She grows more alienated from society, and becomes more desperate. She is eventually arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to the mandatory minimum penalty of 5 years in prison.
For Denise, there could be a series of responses tailored to her unique circumstances, both within and outside the justice system. Instead of moving through the mainstream system, restorative justice practices, such as sentencing circles, could be used to draw on Indigenous approaches that have been proven to work.
The under-reporting of sexual assault incidents is a serious problem across Canada. Victims of sexual assault are often fearful of reporting, of not being believed or supported, or of being subject to traumatizing cross-examination in court. Understanding the laws and the process of reporting and prosecuting crimes is essential to building public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Sexual assault cases
- 1/5 sexual assault claims are determined to be unfoundedFootnote 7
- University student
- Stable upbringing
- Middle-upper class
- No previous contact with the criminal justice system
Jane was sexually assaulted by a classmate at a party. She reports the incident to the police but has trouble describing details, though she did not have much to drink at the party. She begins to doubt herself and does not know if she should follow through with the charges for fear of being cross-examined and “judged” in court.
Jane learns that most sexual assaults do no go to trial and that they often do not result in a guilty verdict. She also hears stories about women who have regretted testifying in court and have said it felt like they were being re-victimized. Not knowing what services are available to support her, Jane decides to not press charges.
As for Jane, better access to information and supports would provide victims of sexual assault the knowledge and confidence they need to report the crime to police and testify in court. Training for professionals in the criminal justice system on the effects of trauma and the lived experiences of sexual assault victims would help avoid misinterpretations or misapplications of the law based on myths and stereotypes.
There is a better way
In all four stories, the outcomes are far from ideal. They put people at risk, break apart families and communities, reduce victims’ and the public’s confidence in the justice system, and cost more money without increasing public safety. They also hinder prosperity and perpetuate cycles of poverty, violence, and victimization.
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