Transformative change needed in criminal justice system, UBC prof argues in new book

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (September 25, 2023, 3:58 PM EDT) -- A University of British Columbia law professor is hoping his new book and podcast will spur a conversation about transforming the criminal justice system in Canada.

Benjamin Perrin’s name may be familiar to people due to his role as criminal justice adviser and in-house legal counsel to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But in his new book Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial (and its related podcast), he is now saying Canada’s criminal justice system needs a major revamp to ensure that it works better for both the victim and the accused.

Perrin said the inspiration for the project was a letter he received in 2018 from an Indigenous man sharing his experience about life in prison.

Benjamin Perrin, University of British Columbia

Benjamin Perrin, University of British Columbia

“As a law professor I sometimes get letters from random members of the public who are desperate and will contact pretty much anyone who has anything to do with the law,” he said. “I keep waiting for the ask, but it never came — he just wanted to talk about what his life was like, and I didn’t to know what to do with it.”

Around the same time former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould put out a public consultation which asked participants what a criminal justice system built from scratch would look like. Perrin said the consultation, as well as the letter, were the spark for the Indictment project.

“And it really led me to talk to people right across the country who are survivors of violent crimes, people who are incarcerated and people on the front lines of the system,” he said. “And they shared not only what we learned about the real fatal flaws in the justice system and what can we do differently.”

Perrin noted many people say the criminal justice system is broken, but his argument is the system is actually “perfectly designed to get the results it is getting,” which is why it is not changing.

“On basically every metric we look at the criminal justice system is worsening — some of the obvious examples are rising crime rates and the disproportionate number of Indigenous people being incarcerated,” he said. “And on the other side we also see that survivors of crime have also given up on the system, because crimes aren’t getting reported to authorities — only five per cent of sexual offences are reported to authorities, and it is estimated that less than one per cent of sexual offences will result in any kind of conclusion within the system. And that is staggering.”

One of Perrin’s theses is that the system is fundamentally flawed and has certain design characteristics that are core to its existence, which is why society is seeing these negative results.

“It is not tinkering reforms we need, but a total rethink,” he said. “People have argued we are not only wasting our time with doing more tinkering, but we are actually continuing to keep the system on life support when we need to be part of a bigger conversation about how we can do things differently than this common law system that has its origins in medieval England.”

With respect to the victims or survivors of crime, Perrin said the fatal flaw in the criminal justice system is that it defines crime as a wrong against the state — and the implication of that it forever treats victims of crime as “pieces of evidence.”

“That is something that needs to change,” he said. “Instead of orienting the system as being crimes against the state, we need to understand things like interpersonal harm as wrongs against the people who they were committed against — and then the focus should be transforming the harm and trauma of the people who are impacted, as well as those who harmed them.”

It is also important to understand how people get caught up in the system and the massive role that early childhood trauma plays in that, said Perrin. He noted research which showed that a person who experiences childhood trauma at an early age, such as physical and sexual abuse and neglect, has a 50 per cent higher risk of harming others when they are older — a number he calls “staggeringly high.”

“There is a massive overlap between victims and offenders and in fact most people who are in the criminal justice system charged or incarcerated were themselves victims of often horrific crimes,” he said. “It is not just that we need to change our minds we also need to soften our hearts and have more compassion and understanding of what people have been through. That doesn’t justify them harming others, but if we want to better understand harm in our society it is crucial to understand how and why harm occurs, so we can do a better job of preventing it and begin to get healing for folks who have both caused harm and have experienced it.”

Part of the new transformative justice system Perrin is arguing for includes looking at what needs to be done to ensure separating people from society doesn’t leave them worse off and more likely to reoffend. He pointed to Norway, which once had a system like Canada’s, but went through a reckoning in the early 1990s that led to a totally new approach based around one central question — what kind of neighbour do you want to have?

“The emphasis is on healing and rehabilitation, and their corrections officers have postsecondary degrees and a rigorous multi-year training with a goal to be mentors and coaches to people who are resident inside,” he said. “And the results speak for themselves — their recidivism rates were once about 60 to 70 per cent, but they reduced those to just 20 per cent. That is an example of a new approach that we need to adopt in Canada.”

Politicians from across the spectrum in Canada have recently begun to bang the “tough on crime” drum once again. But Perrin argues that tough on crime policies are actually “stupid on crime” because they come at a great cost both socially and financially, and don’t make communities safer.

“You can go to the United States and talk to governors who went all in with locking people up and throwing away the key — they built more prisons and filled them up to the brim, but it ended up costing them tons of money, and they didn’t see any safer communities,” he said. “If tough on crime worked then America would be the safest country in the world — and it isn’t.”

During his time at the Prime Minister’s Office Perrin said he was “front of the band of the tough on crime parade” and was a key mover in getting the Harper government’s victims bill of rights enshrined into law. But like Paul, he had a conversion on the road to Damascus and dramatically changed his outlook on the issue.

“I went through a real change about five years ago, and part of that was going to my faith roots and just what do I really believe — and that meant gong back to my Christian faith and reading the Bible to see how Jesus Christ treated people who were marginalized and disadvantaged,” he said. “I really didn’t have care and concern for people who were incarcerated before — I thought they were criminals and were treated too leniently. But I began to work through that and approach these issues with an open mind and an open heart and put aside political ideology and what I thought I knew and just listened.”

Perrin’s book Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial will be released Oct. 3.

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