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

Executive Summary

The Black population in Canada is diverse; it includes communities that have existed for generations across the country, as well as more recent immigrant groups who are diverse in terms of ethnicities, languages, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, and countries of origin. Despite these differences, a common feature of the Black experience in Canada is anti-Black racism–across time, regions, institutions, and various areas of social life. Anti-Black racism is rooted in Canada’s history, through its colonialism, slavery, segregation, and restrictive immigration practices. This history set the stage for the experiences of subsequent generations of Black Canadians, and more recent Black newcomers, by laying the foundations of anti-Black racism that persists to this day (Owusu-Bempah & Gabbidon, 2020). Anti-Black racism is evidenced through systems that produce and perpetuate different outcomes for Black people in comparison to most other Canadians: decreased opportunities for educational success, reduced employment options and career advancement opportunities, increased rates of poverty and unemployment, and elevated levels of contact with the criminal justice system (CJS) (DasGupta et al., 2020; Owusu-Bempah et al., 2021). Policy makers and scholars have increasingly acknowledged the experiences and overrepresentation of Black people in Canada’s CJS as an important social issue and a legacy of Canada’s colonial past (Owusu-Bempah & Gabbidon, 2020). However, despite decades of work on this topic, a comprehensive picture of Black youth’s views of and experiences with the youth CJS across Canada remains absent.

Between August 2020 and April 2021, the Department of Justice Canada (JUS), in collaboration with the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat at the Department of Canadian Heritage, conducted an engagement process to better understand the challenges facing Black youth who have been in contact with and involved in the Canadian youth CJS. This process supports the federal government’s broader efforts under Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy to address access to justice issues. It is also part of the Government of Canada’s commitment to the International Decade for People of African Descent, which has prioritized justice as one of three overarching pillars. The initiative also supports JUS’s 2021 Mandate Letter commitment to address systemic discrimination and the overrepresentation of Black people in the CJS.

A community-based approach was taken for this engagement process. The work was led by seven community liaisons who organized and guided focused virtual engagement sessions and meetings in six cities across Canada: Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. A total of 224 individuals with diverse intersectional backgrounds and experiences participated in these discussions. Participants included Black youth aged 18 to 29, who have had experiences with the CJS under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) when they were 12 to 17 years old, as well as family members and other key stakeholders who could also speak to the experiences of Black youth who have come into contact with the CJS. Each community liaison provided a site-specific summary of key findings and suggested priority areas for action based on their sessions. The following report summarizes the content of the seven site-specific summaries.

Participants 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, over-policing, poverty, exclusion from schooling, barriers to finding employment, and obstacles faced by newcomers attempting to integrate into Canadian society. Youth spoke of engaging in criminality flowing from the attraction of otherwise unattainable lifestyles, as a way of finding family and community, and in response to systemic barriers to participating in mainstream society. Anti-Black racism was present in most if not all of the accounts shared by participants who described Black youth’s pathways to the CJS.

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 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.

There was a near unanimous perception that these 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. Participants engaged through this process identified the following key priority areas for action:

Participants’ stories clearly demonstrate that reducing Black youth’s levels of contact with the CJS 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. This report exists alongside countless other reports, books, journal articles, documentaries, and news stories that all document racial injustices against Black people in Canada and call for concrete action for positive change that lasts.

Though reflective of the experiences of Black youth across Canada, this report is not exhaustive due to a number of limitations. The experiences of Black youth currently aged 12 to 17 were not included because accessing these youth would require a court order. These sessions took place in six cities across five provinces; the specific experiences of Black youth in other provinces and territories and in rural areas of Canada are not included. Gendered differences in factors contributing to interactions with the CJS could not be discussed because most of the youth participants were boys and men. As Black youth participants may also have experience(s) with the adult CJS, their stories may not distinguish between their experiences with the youth and adult systems. Lastly, the pandemic presented an important limitation as it had an impact on the level of participation in these engagement sessions.