Unequal justice: Aboriginal and black inmates disproportionately fill Ontario jails
Race data obtained under freedom of information paints a disturbing picture of black and aboriginal overrepresentation in Ontario youth and adult jails.
Jim Rankin and Patty Winsa Staff Reporters, Hidy Ng Data Analyst, Toronto Star, March 01 2013
Blacks and aboriginal people are overrepresented in Ontario’s youth and adult jails, with some staggering ratios that mirror those of blacks in American jails.
A Star analysis of Ontario jail data, obtained by University of Toronto doctoral candidate Akwasi Owusu-Bempah through freedom of information requests, shows:
• In Ontario, aboriginal boys aged 12 to 17 make up 2.9 per cent of the young male population. But in Ontario youth facilities they make up nearly 15 per cent of young male admissions. In other words, there are, proportionally, five times more aboriginal boys in the young male jail population than what they represent in the general young male population.
• For black boys, the proportion of jail admissions is four times higher.
• For white boys and boys of other ethnicities, there is no such overrepresentation.
• When it comes to girls, only aboriginal girls are overrepresented. Their jail admissions population is 10 times higher than what they represent in the general Ontario population of young girls.
Notably, young male incarceration rates have steadily declined since the introduction of the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003. But black and aboriginal boys have not enjoyed the same rate of decline as white boys. Nor have aboriginal girls.
As Toronto once again searches for answers in the wake of several deaths of young black boys by guns this year, conditions may now be ideal to tackle the roots of violence and change the picture in the province’s jails.
Last year, the United Nations called on Canada to take “urgent measures” to reduce the overrepresentations of aboriginals and blacks in the criminal justice system and out-of-home care.
The picture is similar in Ontario adult jails, according to the Star’s analysis.
For those familiar with the criminal justice system, including corrections staff, academics, lawyers, judges, families and community workers, the numbers are not surprising.
“The trouble is, the numbers don’t show us a lot in the way of hope,” says lawyer Jonathan Rudin, program director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.
Federally, corrections data by race has for many years provided a look at the result of decades of political indifference and systemic racism in many aspects of Canadian society.
In a soon to be published chapter in the Oxford Handbook on Ethnicity, Crime and Immigration, Owusu-Bempah and U of T criminology professor Scot Wortley compared federal Canadian aboriginal and black inmate data with U.S. black inmate data and discovered the degree of overrepresentation of blacks in the justice system is similar.
Yet, in the U.S., black overrepresentation has received far more public and political attention than these similar differences in Canada, perhaps due to volume. The U.S., overall, jails far more people per capita than any nation in the world. Some states spend as much on jails as schools.
But consider the cost of crime, the justice system and incarceration on Canadian families, communities and Canadian taxpayers. Study after study has shown that investing in families, education and mentally and physically healthy communities is less costly than the tab we are paying for sick, poor communities in terms of health costs, opportunities lost, policing, courts and jails.
The Ontario government, following the largest mass shooting in Toronto history last summer, has hurriedly dusted off a five-year-old plan to address the roots of youth violence.
Nationally, the Idle No More movement shows no signs of slowing and Canada is being hauled before a human rights tribunal to face allegations it mistreats aboriginal children.
Ontario’s top court is considering the legality of minimum mandatory sentences that remove judicial discretion and are expected to gradually increase jail populations — at a time when crime is on the decline.
Yet federally, the government — with the recent enactment of an omnibus crime bill that will mean more adults in jail for more crimes and a youth system that just got tougher — is at odds with Ontario and other provinces and territories.