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How to allocate limited criminal justice funds | Adriana Ortiz

Tuesday, November 03, 2020 @ 12:38 PM | By Adriana Ortiz

Adriana Ortiz %>
Adriana Ortiz
As a criminal defence lawyer who has practised law both in Canada and abroad, I can tell you that the criminal justice system is generally not the way to resolve social ills.

Unfortunately, statistically, the criminal justice system is disproportionately used against individuals who are already facing considerable challenges. As a lawyer, I often find myself incredibly frustrated because while I can assist with my client’s legal situation, many of the issues that they face go far beyond the legal system.

Far too many times, individuals brought into the criminal justice system struggle with addiction, mental health, homelessness and chronic unemployment. This is not a coincidence. The statistics on the criminal justice system tell a story.

It is not a defect found in the Canadian justice system. Instead, that is a standard feature found in criminal justice systems across the world. If we look at our neighbours to the south, there is a similar situation. The criminal justice system is a blunt force weapon that does little to create a more just society.

The police are merely reactive. They rarely prevent crimes. However, if you have an emergency, they are quick to appear on the scene and use their toolset to control the situation. But like those in any profession, their toolset is limited. They have a specific training that allows them to assert themselves using particular tactics.

However, society needs macro level solutions. It will not be enough to make small tweaks to deal with the challenges that the criminal justice system, not just policing, is facing right now.

For instance, the Safe Streets Act has criminalized poverty and homelessness, leading to the deployment of the criminal justice system against those who live on public space. Rather than responding with coercive state measures that serve to maintain order at the expense of some of society’s most marginalized individuals, society could invest resources on addressing homelessness directly.

The reality is that every time the criminal justice system is used to intervene, it is because of a tragedy. I do not necessarily mean there has been a serious crime committed because approximately 80 per cent of crime is non-violent, as shown by the Statistics Canada report titled Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2018. In the report, violent crime refers to crime against a person.

I am referring to the tragedy that has occurred for an individual to use illicit substances to quell their pain; to steal because they lack food or shelter; or to disturb the peace because of their mental health. Many of those crimes are entirely preventable.

Now there are calls to defund the police, but some people are uncomfortable with that notion. They may fear that it is too radical. This is misguided, as many individuals simply refer to an divest/invest scheme that involves a reallocation of resources. A movement to consider the underlying causes that contribute to crime and address them directly is precisely what Canada needs.

Thus, when I hear calls to defund the police, I do not worry about “radicals;” I hear the calls of a society who understands, perhaps instinctively, that there is a better way — that society does not need to use a coercive arm of the state to control those who are deemed to be “criminal” or possibly dangerous.

By saying defund the police, people are pointing to a bigger underlying problem. The criminal justice system, the police and its other actors cannot effectively deal with macro level social problems. Such problems require more nuanced solutions and a fundamental commitment to invest in social programs that address the underlying causes of crime.

Determining how we allocate resources is important, as they are limited and can have an impact. Our allocation of resources also signals what we value as a society. Therefore, the spreadsheets and budgets of municipal, provincial and federal governments may seem boring, but are actually intense sites of struggle for creating a better society.

It is fine for governments to boast that they are “open for business,” but are they open to change?

Adriana Ortiz is a criminal defence lawyer and has a master of laws from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. In addition to Ontario, she has also practised in Colombia.You can contact her at

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