John Howard Society Week: Take a look | Catherine Latimer

By Catherine Latimer

Law360 Canada (February 10, 2023, 9:46 AM EST) --
Catherine Latimer
The John Howard Society is a national charity that fills an important role in public education, community service, public safety and in pressing for reform of criminal justice. Our motto is “Effective, just and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime.” We believe that many present policies and practices in Canada are ineffective and even counterproductive, while also being very expensive. 

Who was John Howard?

John Howard was an 18th Century English nobleman who spent five years in French dungeons. He was later made sheriff of Bedford and had the duty to inspect prisons. No sheriff had actually carried out these duties in the past, but John Howard was different. Shocked by the corruption, stench, filth, starvation and disease in the jails, he dedicated his life to improving prison conditions throughout England and most of Europe.

His famous report of 1777, “On the State of Prisons in England and Wales,” led to legislation against the more obvious evils of the system and slowly changed public opinion in favour of more humane prison conditions. The example of John Howard reflects the credo of the John Howard Society of Canada that citizens need to advocate for a fair and effective criminal justice system.

History in Canada

The first John Howard Society in Canada was created in 1931 in British Columbia. It aided prisoners and ex-convicts in rehabilitation and re-integration. In 1946 the Citizens Service Association in Ontario changed its name and became the John Howard Society of Ontario. Most other provinces formed John Howard Societies between 1947 and 1960. In February 1962 the John Howard Society of Canada was formed.

John Howard Society in Canada today

Now there are John Howard Society provincial offices in all 10 provinces and the Northwest Territories, and local branches and offices in more than 60 communities across Canada. The provincial and many local organizations are independent bodies with their own boards, financing and programs.  You can find out more about the provincial and local bodies from our website

These organizations continue to provide supports to prisoners and former prisoners to assist their rehabilitation, to support crime prevention, and to provide public education and advocacy for a better criminal justice system, all with the intent of promoting public safety. For example, we provide supports for people just released from prison, many of whom are homeless and lack documents, so that they are more able to live productive and crime-free lives. Some societies operate halfway houses. Many organize events to promote public awareness of better approaches to justice issues. 

John Howard works closely with many lawyers and is always interested in co-operating with the legal profession to advance our goals.

The current situation in criminal justice

Criminal justice policy is often created as a result of political pressures, not through consideration of the growing evidence on what is effective in reducing crime and improving public safety. In response to these pressures, governments of various parties have introduced policies that run against the evidence, and often turn out to be violations of Canadians’ rights under the Charter. 

We are currently seeing this dynamic at work in Canada with calls for bail “reform” that are based not on what we know about bail but as a response to pressure due to one tragic incident. Similarly, we see calls for increased policing even though we know that more police do not make us safer. Canada spends billions of dollars of public money every year for activities that do not serve our public interest effectively. It is more important than ever that Canadians are aware of the facts around criminal justice. 

John Howard week: Take a look!

Feb 13-17 is John Howard week in Canada. Societies across Canada will be sponsoring events of various kinds to draw attention to their important work and to important issues in this field. You can find out more about what is happening in your community, not just this week but all year round, by visiting the website of your local John Howard Society.  Events organized by the national office will be posted on our website.

All John Howard Societies express their appreciation to Law360 Canada for providing space for this message.

Catherine Latimer is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.
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