Attempts to reduce high Aboriginal prison population rates could be thwarted by the passing of the Conservative’s tough-on-crime legislation, says the head of an Aboriginal legal service organization.
The Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation (NALSC, also known as NAN Legal) has been providing the people within the NAN territory with legal, paralegal, public education and law reform services since 1990.
One of its programs is the restorative justice program, which diverts an offender’s case from the court system into the program where the offence is dealt with at a community level that is culturally relevant.
The passing of Bill C-10, however, will eliminate the ability of judges to impose conditional sentences for different offences, which could drastically alter the effectiveness and overall goal of the restorative justice program.
“The passing of the bill is the most draconian measure imaginable,” NASLC CEO Celina Reitberger said. “It means that there will guaranteed be more Aboriginal people in jail.”
In 2010-11, Aboriginal offenders represented 18.5 per cent of the total federal offender population while Aboriginal adults only represented 3 per cent of the Canadian adult population.
However, that number appears to be higher in northern Ontario.
Statistics provided by Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services show that Aboriginals represent up to 92 per cent of the population in correctional institutions or jails, a number that has grown over the past three years.
At the Monteith Correctional Centre, which serves the Timmins and James Bay region, male inmates who identified themselves as Aboriginal in March 2009 accounted for 51.3 per cent of the prison population.
In 2011, the number grew to 59.7 per cent.
Aboriginal male inmates at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre accounted for 51.1 per cent in 2009 and grew to 52.3 per cent in 2011.
At the Fort Frances Jail, 35.7 per cent of the male inmates identified themselves as Aboriginal in 2009. By 2011, the number grew to 73.7 per cent.
At the Kenora Jail, in a district that contains about 30 First Nation communities, 85 per cent of the prison population were Aboriginal males in March 2011 while 100 per cent of the female population were Aboriginal.
Reitberger said her organization has expanded its restorative justice program over past few years. Last year, the program handled over 400 cases that were diverted from the court system.
However, she believes the program has the potential to do more.
“We’re not doing enough of them,” Reitberger said.
In another effort to curb the amount of charges laid against Aboriginal people, NASLC entered into an agreement last year with Nishnawbe Aski Police Service, which serves many of the First Nation communities in northern Ontario. The agreement establishes a protocol where, “in cases that are considered doable, the police can divert them to our program before they lay the charges, before they do the paperwork,” Reitberger said.
Reitberger criticized the federal government’s attempt to take a tougher stance on crime.
“It’s just so wrong headed that I can’t believe it,” Reitberger said.
“They tried it in the United States and it didn’t work, so now we, north of the border, are emulating what they did, knowing that it doesn’t work.”
“My real fear is that in their frenzy to look tough on crime, Aboriginal people are going to be caught in the net.”
“I hope that they’re not going to be so tough on crime that they decide to do away with the Aboriginal Justice Strategy, ie. funding of restorative justice programs,” Reitberger said.
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