by Senator Jaffer
On March 3, 2014 the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights met to discuss the issue of visible minority youth and the criminal justice system. It is well known that visible minority youth constitute a disproportionate amount of individuals involved in our criminal justice system. Unpacking the reason behind this imbalance was a key objective of our meeting.
Emma Rhodes from the Canadian Council of Criminal Defense Lawyers presented our committee with a narrative of her typical visible minority youth client. Her testimony provides us with the opportunity to see through the eyes of an at risk youth, allowing us to accurately recognize a problem and make positive changes:
“My typical client is a young black man who is not doing well in school. He is in a single parent family where his mom is working several jobs trying to make ends meet. Because she’s working several jobs, she’s not at home. He has difficulty attending classes, and he can’t pay attention once he’s there. He gets involved in a schoolyard fight and is arrested for assault. He is put on a curfew pursuant to a bail, but, because the fight happened at school, he is kicked out of his school as his bail says he is not allowed to have contact with the person that he got in a fight with. So he has to start attending another school mid term.
He is unable to attend that school because he can’t afford the bus tickets to get there, and a new school is not within walking distance. His mom works nights and is unable to monitor him, so, like most teenagers, he ignores his curfew, goes outside and is stopped by police because he is a young black kid walking around alone at night in a racialized neighbourhood.
The police will run his name through the computer, and he is charged with failing to comply with his bail for breaching his curfew. He is arrested and taken into custody, and, at 15 years old, he is strip searched because he’ll be held overnight for a bail hearing.
He is released, and he again breaches his curfew, is again taken into custody and is strip searched again. This time he is found with marijuana. Because his mother is working, she is unable to monitor him, and he stays in custody. The peer group that he comes into contact with while he’s in custody is not a pro social peer group.
Because he was unable to get to school because he couldn’t afford his bus tickets, he misses a year. Because a vulnerable persons’ police record check will show that he has assault charges, he is unable to get a job. I, hopefully, can get him into a mental health court, and I will get an assessment for him that his mother would not otherwise be able to pay for. It may be determined that he has ADHD, which explains his lack of impulse control, and he is diagnosed with depression, which helps to explain his anger and his self medication with marijuana. However, he’s now a year behind in school. He is still living in poverty. He now distrusts the police, and he’s been criminalized for a schoolyard fight that, in our day, would not have attracted police intervention.
Court is the simple part for these kids. Dealing with housing, addictions, mental health issues and lack of access to education is the tough part. I can tell you that most of my clients, once I get these supports for them, do not come back, and they are no longer my clients.”
Emma Rhodes’ testimony paints a picture of a visible minority youth facing a criminal justice system that lacks regard for his wellbeing. Once the visible minority youth is picked up by the police on the first offense, he enters a system that can be difficult to get out of, in part because of its prejudice against him.
Understanding why visible minority youth are more likely to find themselves facing the criminal justice system is a complex question with many variables. From Ms. Rhodes’ testimony, it is clear that many visible minority youth who end up in our justice system are victims of circumstance. They often face systemic discrimination and they come from a background of poverty. What is common amongst almost all of them is that they are unable to access the support and services necessary to get out of their spiral into delinquency.
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