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The injustice system

Benjamin Perrin explores the nitty-gritties of Canada's legal justice system.

March 13th, 2024

Benjamin Perrin researches and teaches in the areas of criminal law and international law at UBC.

Written in two parts, Perrin’s new book sheds light on the harsh realities faced by those incarcerated and offers insight into how he plans to uproot the current system and plant his new vision of “transformative justice.”


Benjamin Perrin’s latest book, Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial (University of Toronto Press $32.95) offers a provoking exploration of Canada’s criminal justice system and challenges the conventional approach to criminal justice by prioritizing the voices of those directly impacted. Part one sheds light on the harsh realities faced by individuals incarcerated for both minor and major offenses; the unfair, unjust, forceful policing techniques used by law enforcers when apprehending individuals; and the systemic racism that poisons the current justice system. Part two delves into how Perrin aims to work towards completely deconstructing the existing criminal justice system and establishing seven key aspects of his vision of “transformative justice.” With this new philosophy, Perrin aspires to facilitate a more holistic, caring, safe and inclusive community that gives victims, offenders and their families the strength to find purpose and create a better future for themselves. BCBookLook conducted the following interview with Perrin.

BCBookLook: You have spoken to a multitude of individuals who can directly or indirectly provide insight into the Canadian criminal justice system. How long did it take to complete this book, and could you explain what the process was like?

Benjamin Perrin: Indictment started with a 7–8-page handwritten letter an Indigenous man wrote to me in 2018 from behind prison walls. He shared about his despair and hopelessness. One of the lines in his letter haunted me: “If you want to turn a man into an animal, put him in a cage without the resources to build him back up.” Around that time, Justice Canada launched a public consultation asking: “If you could design a new criminal justice system from scratch, what would it look like?”

This was the kindling and the spark for Indictment. I interviewed people who work in and around the justice system as well as people with lived experience from across Canada – survivors of crime and incarcerated people. I learned more from them than in over 20 years working in and around the criminal justice system.

BCBL: In your engagement with various people, from incarcerated individuals to families affected by the system, were there specific stories that deeply impacted your understanding of the flaws within the criminal justice system? Please give us some examples.

BP: I was shocked that the majority of people who were incarcerated entered the system as very young people. “Courtney” (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) spent 25 years in prison from the ages of 12 to 39 years, in and out, in and out. Her traumatic childhood led her to become addicted to alcohol and drugs as a young kid. Run-ins with police soon followed. When the trauma of Courtney’s incarceration finally broke her and she attempted suicide, she was briefly given medical treatment only to be returned to segregation for three months. The cruelty, heartlessness and ineffectiveness of our system was painfully brought home. I thought it was important to let people tell their stories in their own words in this book, then talk about what the stats and studies and professionals had to say.

BCBL: The role trauma plays in substance abuse situations and in the lives of most people engaged in criminal activity is a recurring discussion throughout the book. Could you elaborate how the current justice system fails to address this critical aspect?

BP: Trauma is pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. From victims of crime, to the people who harmed them, to the professionals working in the system who experience vicarious trauma. We can’t understand any interaction in the system without understanding trauma. The impact of intergenerational trauma, particularly impacting Indigenous and Black people, cannot be overstated either.

Someone who is victimized as a child is 50% more likely to harm others later in life, and eight times more likely to be sexually abused again. Childhood trauma is an almost universal experience of people incarcerated. And the system compounds that trauma. At the same time, survivors experience “secondary victimization” or re-traumatization in a system never designed for them. It’s one of the reasons only one-third of crime is reported and only 5-6% of sexual offences are reported.

BCBL: As trauma-informed lawyering is crucial in your vision, how can legal professionals practically integrate this approach into their practices and advocate for its broader adoption within the legal education system?

BP: I’ve been teaching about trauma in my criminal law classes for the last few years. It’s something I never learned in law school as a student and really should have. I think about the experiences I had of depression and despondency in researching, teaching and being involved at courts dealing with incredibly violent and horrific crimes. Police, lawyers and judges are predominantly interacting with disproportionately traumatized populations. This impacts how these professionals will either understand or exacerbate the trauma they encounter. It goes far beyond training to create new and better ways to address harm in our society. That’s what I spend the second half of Indictment exploring in concrete ways.

Professor Benjamin Perrin having a conversation on Global BC, about his book, Indictment

BCBL: In what ways can Housing First programs be improved to provide stable housing and support for those experiencing homelessness, and reduce their vulnerability to victimization and involvement in the criminal justice system?

BP: “Housing First” is an example of an evidence-based approach to reducing harm in our society. The strategy is first to house, then to support. Housing can help people stabilize in safety so that they can get help with mental health and substance use issues and begin to work on their unresolved trauma once they’re ready. Studies have found that Housing First helps people stay housed, reduces the need for costly emergency shelters, emergency services, and criminal justice involvement. A Canadian study found that the odds of being victimized reduced by 18 per cent over a two-year period for Housing First participants.

BCBL: How might a non-police mobile crisis response system like CAHOOTS better serve marginalized communities, such as Indigenous, Black, or people of color?

BP: Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon is non-police mobile crisis teams providing an alternative to an armed police response for calls about people in mental health distress or who are intoxicated or homeless. By dispatching specially-trained civilian crisis workers and medics to respond to 15-20% of 911 and non-emergency police calls for people with these types of needs, CAHOOTS has proven to be an effective and compassionate solution that even generates financial savings. We need 24/7 non-police mobile crisis teams in every part of the country. Some cities, like Toronto, have already piloted this idea and announced a city-wide expansion by the end of 2024.

BCBL: How does restorative justice differ from the traditional criminal justice system, and what are the key principles underlying the restorative justice approach?

BP: Survivors of crime deserve to be seen, heard and involved. Crime isn’t a “wrong against the state” – it is a wrong against the people who were assaulted, robbed, threatened or whose loved ones were murdered. Most people assume victims simply want harsh punishment. But research shows above all they want information and to participate and have their voices heard.

“Collaborative Justice Program: Restorative Justice Ottawa” has been offering restorative justice services for violent crime for decades. It has higher victim satisfaction and lower recidivism rates of people who harmed them, despite limited funding. We need to mainstream restorative justice as the primary means of resolving conflict in our society and to support people who experienced harm, and people who caused them harm to heal.

BCBL:How does Norway’s approach to corrections compare to the traditional incarceration model in Canada, and what specific elements of the Nordic system could be adapted to improve the Canadian context?

BP: Considered one of the “most innovative” and humane prisons worldwide, Halden Prison in Norway prioritizes rehabilitation and healing. Halden has achieved a significant drop in recidivism rates from 60-70% to just 20%. Since most inmates will eventually be released, the question they ask is: “What kind of a neighbour do you want to have?” That means totally different approaches to staff training, architecture, programming, integration with community supports, mentorship, substance use treatment, mental health support, and employment and vocational training.

We need to abolish traditional prisons and jails, and only separate people from society as a last resort. And for the limited number of people who need to be separated, we need rehabilitation and healing centres like Halden – instead of traditional jails and prisons.

BCBL: It is clear that the Canadian justice system must undergo radical change from the roots to help enrich the lives of those incarcerated, instead of causing them more pain and trauma. And deconstructing a rigid system that has been in place for decades and revolutionizing it in a completely different way is no easy feat. What are some future plans that you are working on to ensure that your vision for Canada’s justice system comes to fruition?

BP: In addition to publishing Indictment, we’ve also launched a podcast on all major platforms by the same name (“Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial”). It won a “best podcast” award and each episode tells the story of someone profiled in the book. It’s a behind-the-scenes look that readers have said they love, and it also helps us reach a broader audience. I’m also excited that the Law Foundation of British Columbia, which has financially supported this work, has extended a new research funding award for us to continue this important work. My students and I plan on doing even more work to help Canadians see there are better ways to keep us all safer than discredited “tough on crime” policies or simply tinkering with the status quo.

9781487506278

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This interview will be edited for the Summer issue of BCBookWorld.

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