Opinion Racism

Why the justice system is racist

The justice system is broken; it’s racist. Here’s why.

In 2017, the Office of the Correctional Investigator published a report (see my notes below) that included statistics on indigenous people in Canadian prisons. Here are some highlights:

  • Indigenous people make up 26.4% of Canada’s prison population
  • Indigenous people make up only 5% of the general population.
  • That means Indigenous people make up a 500% larger proportion of the prison population than the general population.
  • Since 2007, federal prison population increased by under 5%.
  • In that same period, the Indigenous prison population increased by 39%.
  • Indigenous inmates are less likely than non-Indigenous inmates to be granted parole
  • Indigenous persons received higher security classifications that non-Indigenous persons.
  • Indigenous inmates are released later in their sentence than non-Indigenous inmates
  • Indigenous inmates are more likely than non-Indigenous inmates to be segregated, undergo use-of-force, and end up in maximum security.
  • Indigenous inmates are more likely than non-Indigenous inmates to return to prison due to parole suspension or parole revocation
  • Despite entering correctional programmes more quickly and finishing those programmes sooner, Indigenous inmates are released later and revoked more often.

And so on.

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There’s just no way that Indigenous people are committing crimes at such a high rate. Let alone to warrant harsher penalties. It just doesn’t make sense.

If anyone claims that the Canadian justice system is fair, they must account for this discrepancy. They must be able to explain why one small minority group is being convicted of such a large proportion of the crime.

One possible explanation is that Indigenous people are prone to crime. That is a possible explanation, but it’s also a racist one. There is no genetic predisposition toward crime. Or if there is, it isn’t the genes related to indigeneity. Unless someone has some evidence that suggests the pre-contact Americas were plagued by crime.

That being said, it’s not even just an Indigenous issue.

Black Canadians represent the fastest growing demographic in Canadian prisons. There are 70% more black inmates in prison than there were in 2006. In fact, the rate of black incarceration has risen every year since at least 2005. They make up 10% of the prison population yet only 3% of the general population.

So, if Indigenous people commit more crimes because they’re Indigenous, then does that mean black people commit more crimes because they’re black? I mean, if criminal disposition is genetic.

White people make up not only a smaller proportion of the prison population than the general population, that proportion has been dropping.

So if Indigenous and black people are more likely to commit crime because they’re Indigenous or black, then surely white people are less likely to commit crime because they’re white.

Can you start to see why this viewpoint is racist? It’s the same old refrain white people used to take land away from Indigenous people, to enslave them, and to preach the depravity out of them. They’re naturally uncivilized and white people are civilized, which is why white people are entitled to brown land, persons, and spirits.

But what if we don’t take that racist stance? What if we admit that people aren’t predisposed to crime based on race genetics? But we still think the justice system is fair and balanced?

Well, you still must account for the disparity. Maybe indigenous people and black people do commit crime at a higher rate, but it’s not because of genetics. Maybe it’s because of their circumstance.

For example, Indigenous people have a lower average income than the national average. They have lower education rates, lower unemployment, worse health, higher rates of violence, and so on.

But then we’re back to where we were on the imprisonment issue. Do they fare worse socially because they’re Indigenous? Are Indigenous people genetically predisposed to be impoverished, do worse in school, die sooner, and so on, just because they’re indigenous?

To blame Indigenous people’s social ills on their indigeneity is the height of colour blindness. It’s to ignore the decades—even centuries—of institutional racism that has stripped them of their land, their language, their family, their culture, their language, their autonomy, their spirit.

My earliest ancestors who came to what is now Canada did so 400 years ago. They weren’t the first settlers either. White people as a group have been trying to erase indigeneity for a very long time. And because of Indigenous resilience, every effort of white settlers has ultimately failed.

All they have left is the justice system. So white cops card Indigenous people at higher rates. White cops arrest them at higher rates. White judges sentence them at higher rates. And white prison officials oppress them at higher rates.

If reserve lands didn’t punish the indigeneity out of them, maybe reserve prisons will. And *that* is why the justice system is broken and racist.


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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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