Posts in Our Justice System
Our Justice System: Discussed
Our Justice System PIC.png

Please watch the following video: 

Naomi Nichols: Young People’s Knowledge

If we want young people to re-enter communities and not re-engage in criminal activity, it is imperative that the police advising youth and making decisions about their futures have a clear sense of how the world works from the standpoints of the young people they are serving. Too often, decisions are made by people who fail to grasp the cumulative impacts of racism, poverty, food and housing insecurity, school failure and pervasive police presence in the lives of youth.

To really understand the links between a young person’s involvement in the justice system and his or her experiences of housing and homelessness, one needs to understand what it’s like to grow up in neighbourhoods that are shaped by housing insecurity, poverty, criminality, and pervasive negative interactions with the police – partly because these are the contextual factors, shaping the likelihood that a young person will come into conflict with the law in the first place, but also because these are the very life circumstances awaiting a young person during re-entry.

Service providers and decision makers also need to understand how the various systems impacting youth wellbeing interconnect. Nowhere is this more evident than for youth in conflict with the law.

What are we do to change this reality?

Moving Forward

we would be well-served by treating young people as knowledgeable experts of their own lives and heeding what they have to tell us. They know the system is broken, and they can point to the places where institutional interventions do more harm than good.

From here, we must do the hard work of creating, testing and continually re-adjusting our interventions, such as the systematic processes of exclusion and neglect (e.g., the racism, gender-based violence, homo/transphobia, classism, colonialism), which create and sustain the instabilities at the root of criminal offending, are addressed.

Pragmatically, this looks like the following:

·      Monitoring the race, class and gender based outcomes of particular systemic interventions to reveal and address disproportionalities

·      Engaging in participatory knowledge-to-action cycles (or research-driven feedback loops) with youth to design and evaluate interventions, which reflect the actual conditions of their lives

·      Creating and funding equality and root-cause oriented government programs, which give legs to policy ang legislation, which in their present state fail to create positive changes in young people’s lives.


Over the last several weeks, The Listening Project has worked with Naomi Nichols to connect Naomi’s research with the videos that we created for a video mini-series called: Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible? In doing this, we demonstrated the vast similarities in the experience that young people are having across Canada. Furthermore, we unpacked Our Justice System to answer the question: What can we do to change this reality? Thank you so much to Naomi for sharing your experiences working alongside young people and being The Listening Projects FIRST guest!


As always, we encourage you to share, comment and tell us your thoughts and learnings!

If you or anyone you know would like to share their story and experience, please contact us at

Our Justice System: Discussed
Our Justice System PIC.png

Please watch the following video: 

Naomi Nichols: Intersectoral Dimensions

For example, a lack of appropriate housing and supervision for youth leaving custody or detention increases the likelihood they will re-enter the community via a homeless shelter or the streets.

Additionally, all of the inter-institutional challenges associated with re-entry are connected to the gendering and racializing experiences youth have had with other institutional authorities prior to incarceration, and that they will continue to have – in one way or another – when discharged back into their communities – particularly communities that are characterized by an antagonist relationship with the police. 

These cultural and inter-personal barriers to re-entry are magnified by persistent inter-organizational and cross-sectoral gaps, which make it difficult to coordinate resources and services for youth in community. For example, youth who grow up in Toronto Community Housing and/or one of Toronto’s neighbourhood improvement areas see themselves and their neighbourhoods as unfairly stigmatized. Youth report particularly intense and fraught relations with the police:

“the police deal with you according to what they believe that you are. It’s the same in metro housing – in any priority neighbourhood. Its how they’ve [the police] grown up to see you. They [the police] don’t deal with you as a person … they come to us and judge us [based] on the neighbourhood’s history, not who you are.”

We asked young people in Canada’s largest youth jail how often they had interactions with the police outside, the general response was something like, “not too much – maybe a couple of times a day.”

Toronto Police Services and Toronto Community Housing have a contract that grants Agent of the Landlord status for all Toronto Community Housing properties, as well as a range of other information sharing agreements (Nichols & Braimoh, 2016). Where youth live in families that cant afford market rents and must rely on Toronto Community Housing, they are subject to more non-crime related stops than people who live in other environments. Interactions with the police do not just occur on the streets, but also in their homes.

For those families who are evicted from social housing environments or who decide to leave voluntarily, the increased financial burden of market housing can reduce their choices or freedoms in other areas – some parents pick up more shifts at work, limiting the time they are able to spend in the home; other families experience food insecurity; while others turn to the streets to generate income.

Due to elevated crime and call for service rates in some neighbourhoods, there is also extensive police activity in the neighbourhood more generally – that is, not simply on social housing properties. Police are actively present in the neighbourhood gathering intelligence and doing what they describe as “community outreach.” They are also involved in high schools as School Resource Officers and in the data gathering activities, associated with initiatives like Toronto’s Anti-violence Prevention Strategy or TAVIS.

Of the 48 young people I interview in one of Toronto’s North-West neighbourhoods, all but a couple described unwanted interactions with the police. A few of the encounters they talked about took place in school; most took place in the neighbourhood. All of the 15 youth we interviewed in a youth justice facility reported daily or weekly encounters with the police in their neighbourhoods.

Most young people’s first encounters with the police are non-crime related. When I say that a stop is “non-crime related,” I mean that the police stopped them – and often searched them – asked for ID and recorded the information into their data bases through the production of contact cards, but the young people were not actually breaking any laws at the time of the encounter. Many youths we have spoken with will go on to describe subsequent interactions that lead to involvement with the youth justice system and then later repeated “administration of justice offences” like a break of probation. Other simply describe repeated non-crime related interactions throughout their adolescents.

These encounters with the police are fraught with tension for the youth. Young men, in particular, describe being treated like “little bitches” by the police. On the other hand, these same youth, describe the police as “the boydom,” in comparison to their own groups of friends and associates, who they call “the mandom.” Young men I worked with as co-researchers talked about all the effort they out into being “fierce” and level-headed on the streets – where one must deal with the politics of the ‘hood and continuous encounters with the police.’ This work, they explain is stressful and part of the reason why they are quick to snap – on each other, on teachers, on parents, and any adult in a position of authority.


Please check back with us next week as we continue to unpack Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible?

As always, we encourage you to share, comment and tell us your thoughts and learnings!

Our Justice System: Discussed
Our Justice System PIC.png

Please watch the following video: 

Naomi Nichols: The Failed Promise of Re-Integration (cont.) & Intersectoral Dimensions

Darren, a youth advocate, explains how he gets “calls from everywhere” for him to help youth navigate a highly fragmented system of supports during re-entry:

I get a call from the courts, from the Crown attorney, from the probation officer and sometimes, believe it or not, police officers who’ve seen my card. And community leaders, community social workers, school social workers, principals, vice principals, teachers, etc. I get calls from all of these places and they say, “We have a youth who we think might benefit from your mentorship, doing what you do. Right now, the youth is in incarceration and needs you to come out,” or “right now we’re trying to have a bail for a youth. He has nowhere to go, so we think you might be able to help him navigate the shelter system because he can’t go home.”

Ideally, the re-integration process would be coordinated, targeted, and planned. Unfortunately, it is just as likely that a youth will go to court one day and simply not return to custody (field not, RM school staff). Darren’s description of his work suggests an ad-hoc system where the degree to which a young person experiences a sustained transition from custody may depend on whether or not the youth is able to connect to someone like him.

Further, while many re-entry programs focus on addressing problems within the individual – e.g., anger management or drug and alcohol rehabilitation – there remains insufficient attention paid to the structural issues young people will face during re-entry. Youth continue to be discharged into homeless shelters or into communities that have been negatively impacted by poverty, racism, and ongoing police surveillance. And they continue to be discharged without any clear sense of how they will navigate re-entry.

Almost every young man we spoke with at an Ontario youth justice facility said that when he “hit roads,” he would stay out of trouble, by making better choices. Even when probed to talk about their re-entry plans, none of the youth could speak to these documents or seemed to know that they exist. It blows my mind that we prepare young men and women for community re-entry, by suggesting they should make better decisions.

The mantra – I will make better choices – is what young people have learned to say to judges. This is what they have learned to say to you and their probation officers. But it is an empty promise for youth who will transition back into neighbourhoods shaped equally by criminality and criminalizing institutional processes.

What choices are actually available to young people who are met by their “bosses” upon re-entry, puffed up for their great work and then given a new mission or bunch of drugs to move. Youth who fail to comply with these requests are threatened with violence – towards themselves and their families. Going to the police only represents further risk to their safety.

Youth who transition back into acute poverty, family conflict, and/or housing instability or homelessness similarly have very few actual choices available to them. The desire to “make better choices” is quickly replaced by a need to take care of one’s most basic requirements for food, shelter, and safety.

Upon release from custody, youth are returned to these same neighbourhoods. Some youth return to neighbourhoods with endless opportunities for street work, few opportunities to enter the official labour market, and considerable police presence – on the streets and in their homes. These interactions with the police – and their criminalizing impacts – are the ordinary backdrop to some people’s childhoods. Youth talk about how they learn to recognize under-cover officers at a distance and find new routes in and through their neighbourhoods. The feeling that one will be treated like a criminal no matter what one does influences the decisions one makes when faced with opportunities to make little money on the street.


Please check back with us next week as we continue to unpack Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible?

As always, we encourage you to share, comment and tell us your thoughts and learnings!

Our Justice System: Discussed
Our Justice System PIC.png

Please watch the following video: 

Naomi Nichols: The Failed Promise of Re-integration

Planning for re-integration is meant to start when a youth enters custody, is assigned a Youth Services Officer or (YSO), and begins to engage in rehabilitative services, including case management, pursuit of education, and participation in incentive structures and behaviour modification programs. The re-integration process ends in community, where ideally the youth is assigned a probation officer, and seamlessly transitions into community programming, including education and training.

But the youth in custody or detention we interviewed in Canada’s largest youth jail had no sense of what re-entry would look like for them.

When youth transition out of custody, youth workers and advocates discover that wait lists and narrow eligibility requirements (e.g., education minimums for participation in job-readiness programs) make it difficult to engage youth in suitable programming in community environments. Some youth are unable to return home, and as such, simultaneously find themselves navigating the province’s social assistance system and social housing resources – as well as any number of community sector organizations – as part of their re-entry process. The public and community sector organizations that a youth may be required to navigate are not organized to provide a cohesive system of care for youth.


Please check back with us next week as we continue to unpack Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible?

As always, we encourage you to share, comment and tell us your thoughts and learnings!

Our Justice System: Discussed
Our Justice System PIC.png

During the month of April, we paid attention to Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible? By taking thirteen young people’s realities over the last thirty years, collecting and joining them to create a video mini-series. All of the statements used in each video are real accounts of how young people have experienced the Canadian Criminal Justice System. For the month of June, we are revisiting this mini-series. The Listening Project is excited to welcome a guest researcher, Naomi Nichols, McGill University. Naomi is a friend of The Listening Project who has worked closely with young people in Ontario and Quebec. Over the next several weeks, you will see Naomi’s research connected with the videos we created for the series to demonstrate the vast similarities in experience that young people are having across Canada. In doing this, we hope to unpack Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible? and answer the question: what can we do to change this reality?  


To begin, we are sharing Naomi Nichols introduction and her policy background. As always, we encourage you to share, comment and tell us your thoughts and learnings:


Recently, I had the tremendous good fortune to hear a young woman, who had been in conflict with the law, struggled with addictions, and experienced homelessness during adolescence, speak about her experiences as a research assistant on a project about services for homeless youth in her city. As a consequence of listening to other young people share their experiences with the youth criminal justice and the street-involved youth serving systems – and seeing the lines of convergence across their stories – she came to the astute conclusion that there was a systemic basis to their shared experiences. It wasn’t coincidental that their paths through labyrinthine youth “care” systems took similar turns (Charlotte Smith, Coming Up Together, Ottawa Canada, Key Note Panel, 2018)


This was the same feeling I had as I engaged with The Doorway’s The Listening Project audio and text-based stories about young people’s experiences with the youth criminal justice system. It is not coincidental that young people in Alberta describe relations with the police and the youth criminal justice system that echo those described by youth in Ontario. In part, this is a function of the Youth Criminal Justice Act being Canadian legislation. But the similarities are a result of more than a shared legislative backdrop: the provision of correctional programs and services for youth is a provincial and federal responsibility. So, you’d imagine there may be striking differences in experiences across two provincial contexts.


But what stands out are the similarities - namely that despite the mandate to rehabilitate and re-integrate youth who have offended, the youth criminal justice system designs and delivers public safety interventions, which undermine young people’s safe and stable integration into housing, community, educational and labour market opportunities. The sheer number of court-dates and conditions (e.g., being unable to learn at the same institution as a co-accused) make continuous education and/or labour market participation nearly impossible. Furthermore, insufficient coordination of housing and socio-economic supports upon re-entry increases the likelihood that a young person – particularly those re-entering poverty – will re-offend.


For the last 10 years, I’ve been doing research – anchored in the experiences and insights of young people and the institutional and social contexts shaping young people’s experiences of exclusion in their neighbourhoods, in our public institutions, and community-level organizations. The research has similar objectives to The Doorway’s The Listening Project – it seeks to amplify young people’s knowledge of the systematic and structural conditions of exclusion and neglect, inclusion and opportunity, which give shape to their lives. But I also seek to add to what we understand about the precise policy and practice mechanisms that shape the outcomes young people describe.


In this blog post – in responses to the poignant stories shared by young people in The Listening Project and the young people’s I’ve interviewed over the years in Ontario and Quebec – I highlight a few (of many) points of rupture in young people’s re-entry from detention or incarceration.


Policy Background:

The introduction of the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003 was meant to address high rates of youth incarceration by:

·      Providing alternative, community-based options in lieu of incarceration,

·      Limiting the use of detention, prior to sentencing (i.e., pre-trial detentions), and

·      Improving re-integration and rehabilitation efforts in order to limit repeat offences.


The re-integration process is one of several reforms meant to improve public safety, while also reducing youth incarceration rates. The focus on community re-entry is presented as a developmentally appropriate and rehabilitative response to youth justice issues.


But key to our understanding of the efficacy of any of these reforms is the inter-dependence between the youth justice sector and the various other institutional settings impacting the lives of children, youth and families.


Please check back with us next week as we continue to unpack Our Justice System: The Story of the Impossible?

As always, we encourage you to share, comment and tell us your thoughts and learnings!

Our Justice System: Story of the Impossible?: Reading List
April 2018_ intro photo.png

Tylers Troubled Life:

School to Pipeline:

Canada’s criminal Justice System Report Card – Alberta Rating:

Connecting Listening Projects: Bringing your attention back to Our Son’s Story from our Overdose Awareness Project:

The Listening Project: The Word Correction is in its Name:

The Listening Project: Not Anymore, Never Again:

The Listening Project: Just a Number in the Judicial System:

The Listening Project: Downward Spiral: