Black Youth and the Criminal Justice System: Summary Report of an Engagement Process in Canada


The Black youth, their families and stakeholders consulted through this engagement process identified a variety of systemic, social, economic and geographical factors that increase the likelihood that Black youth come in contact with the CJS. These included, among others, experiences with over-policing, poverty, exclusion from schooling, difficulties finding employment, and obstacles faced as newcomers attempt to integrate into society. Youth spoke of engaging in criminality flowing from the attraction to otherwise unattainable lifestyles, as a way of finding family and community, and in response to systemic barriers to participating in mainstream society. The theme of anti-Black racism ran through all of these explanations.

Anti-Black racism was also seen to influence Black youth’s experiences with criminal justice institutions and its representatives. First contact with the system, in the form of policing, came very early for many youth, often in schools and within their neighbourhoods. At times, first contacts were absent of any criminality on the part of these young people. The youth, their families and stakeholders spoke of dehumanizing and degrading treatment at the hands of the police and by court actors. They also spoke of abusive, violent, and potentially criminal treatment by custodial facility actors. Poverty, language barriers and mental health struggles worsened treatment and as a result, lived experiences.

“Although emerging from these engagement sessions were stories of struggle, there was a salient point to be made among participants; and that was that none of these experiences are new nor are they isolated to [these Black youth], even though their stories and experiences are unique and positioned. Rather, the interactions between Black youth and the CJS and related institutions across Canada are part of a long history of anti-Black racism. Historically, these systems have not only sought to harm and unfairly punish Black communities―either intentionally or not―but have done so by viewing them as less than human and without the same rights afforded to other groups of citizens. Accordingly, as much as the…stories in this report are about the struggles Black youth face, they are also a reflection of the strength, courage, and resilience with which they have had to make difficult decisions to the best of their ability in the face of adversity and with an unyielding willingness to persevere.” (HOODFAMS, 2021)


It is important to recognize that the resilience demonstrated by Black communities in the face of adversity experienced across Canadian history comes at a high cost to the wellbeing of Black people in Canada – physically, mentally, and emotionally. There was a near unanimous perception that criminal justice agencies are not well equipped to deal with the specific needs of the ethnically and culturally diverse Black populations in Canada. There was also relative consensus that anti-Black racism is embedded in criminal justice agencies, as a factor driving the ways in which Black populations are treated throughout the entire CJS system. This report identifies numerous priority areas for action by all levels of government. These key priorities cut across several social systems and touch on the following areas:

This report exists alongside countless other reports, books, journal articles, documentaries, and news stories that all document racial injustices against Black people in Canada. These racial injustices limit Black youth, tear apart Black families and communities, attempt to extinguish the Black spirit, prevent Black progress, and put many Black people in a constant state of survival. Participants’ stories clearly demonstrate that reducing Black youth’s levels of contact with the justice system and improving their experience within justice institutions requires not only criminal justice reform, but also efforts within all the various social systems that shape the lives of Black youth, their families and their communities. Numerous previous works have called for action that addresses the roots of systemic racism and recommends concrete action for positive change that lasts. We hope this report is viewed not merely as words on a page or as just another report. We hope the suggested priority areas for action are viewed as opportunities to confront racial injustice holistically. Lastly, we hope that the priority areas for action are addressed with immediacy, creativity, intensity, passion, care, respect, collaboration, and acknowledgement that this work is long overdue.