Our Justice System: Discussed

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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!