- an acquittal;
- a withdrawal or stay of charges;
- a finding of guilt but an absolute or conditional discharge upon sentencing.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Is the justice system blind to colour? Apparently so
Visible minorities charged with a crime in Canada are less likely to be convicted, but more likely to have a DNA sample taken. They're also more likely to have police warnings on their file for violence, escape risk and suicidal behaviour.
These differences were identified in a Star analysis of the criminal histories of nearly 3 million people. The data comes from the Canadian Police Information Centre database, in which race is recorded as white or non-white.
While the differences between the two groups are clear, the reasons for them are less so. On the surface, they raise questions about the fairness of Canada's justice system.
The data, obtained in an access to information request that took 2 1/2 years, is a snapshot of Canadian criminal histories as of late 2005. The cases were serious enough to require fingerprints and were submitted by local police to the RCMP-administered CPIC database in Ottawa.
The Star asked criminologists, lawyers, a judge, and a police chief for their theories on the key differences.
The data obtained by the Star contains two kinds of files: 2.4 million criminal records where a conviction was registered and 500,000 criminal histories, where there was a charge but no conviction.
A "no conviction" notation means there was one of the following:
Even without a conviction, the record of having been charged can remain for years in the CPIC database, which is accessed tens of millions of times a year by police, other enforcement agencies and even potential employers.
The Star's analysis of the data shows that non-whites were 53 per cent more likely than whites not to be convicted.One explanation for the difference is that judges could be giving more discharges to non-white offenders as a "reward" for dead time spent in jail awaiting trial. The 1995 Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System determined that black accused, for example, are more often held without bail.
"My guess," said an Ontario judge who reviewed the findings but who asked not to be identified, "is that if the 'non-whites' have spent more time than 'whites' in pre-trial custody, one of the ways judges may 'reward' them is by giving a discharge rather than registering a conviction, especially as there may be immigration consequences if a conviction is registered."
That same systemic racism report found that black accused were more likely than white accused to plead not guilty, which would increase the chance of not being convicted.
Defence lawyer Daniel Brown, of the Toronto law firm Pinkofskys, suggests there is over-charging in cases where there are multiple non-white accused.
"We see this all the time in large gang projects where hundreds are arrested and thousands of charges are laid, only to see a few accused left at the end of the day facing a handful of charges."
There have been similar sweeps of Aboriginal gangs out West, which might also explain this phenomenon.
University of Windsor law professor David Tanovich also pointed to overcharging as a possible explanation, but also saw something positive in the data differences.
It may mean, he said, that more Crowns are "withdrawing charges they feel are the product of racial profiling. This is a positive thing."
Scot Wortley, a University of Toronto criminologist who has devoted most of his academic career to examining bias in the justice system, said the differences in conviction rates could damage the reputation of police.
"For whatever reason, the data suggests that minorities are much more likely to be charged without enough evidence for prosecutors to get a conviction.
"If they are concentrated in particular communities, it could undermine the legitimacy of law enforcement – that the community itself may believe police lay bogus or unwarranted charges as a means of harassment."
Lawyer Adam Weisberg, also with Pinkofskys, suggests fewer findings of guilt for non-whites were due to heavier policing in poorer neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of new immigrants. "In a neighbourhood with a heavy police presence there are more charges, and with quantity, there is often a decline in quality."
Toronto police chief Bill Blair, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, says the explanations suggested by defence lawyers are "quite predictable."
"It is the job of defence counsel to create reasonable doubt, obfuscate, and one of the ways they might do that is to undermine the credibility and confidence the criminal justice system would have in the police," says Blair.
"So they're suggesting the police would be responsible for this in the absence of a great deal more information which would be required to determine what is really going on."
Police do deploy more officers in troubled neighbourhoods "where are people being hurt, where people are being injured, where violence is taking place," says Blair. "Yes, there are criminal acts that take place in other neighbourhoods but they don't represent the same level of risk to the broader community."
As for his thoughts on the difference on convictions, Blair said he would need to know more.
"Without knowing what charges we're talking about, what were the reasons by which they were not convicted . . . it would be difficult to speculate on why that would be."
The Star analysis of CPIC data shows that 32.5 per cent of those required to provide DNA samples were non-white, even though non-whites make up only 16.7 per cent of those with criminal records.
For sex crimes, kidnapping and murder, a DNA sample is required upon conviction, although Canadian judges have been scolded for not always ordering samples when they are supposed to.
For other major, yet less serious crimes, such as criminal mischief, robbery and assault, judges have discretion to decide if DNA should be taken.
The difference in who gives samples cannot be explained simply by differences in the seriousness of charges. (Non-whites account for a disproportionately high 23.9 per cent of records for violent offences; the same for robbery.)
Comparing the same kinds of criminal records still shows a difference between whites and non-whites. For example, of people who have a criminal record for violence, 10.5 per cent of non-whites had DNA taken versus 6.1 per cent of whites.
For with a record for robbery (and nothing else) non-whites are 50 per cent more likely to have had a sample taken.
"The DNA stuff is troubling," the judge who reviewed the data analysis said in an e-mail. "One would have to know if the charges are different – i.e. if `non whites' are charged more frequently for offences likely to carry a mandatory requirement for a DNA sample, or whether judges are ordering them more where they have a discretion to do so. I don't know about that, and I haven't heard any rumblings about that as an issue."
Brown, the lawyer with Pinkofskys, questions giving judges discretion to order DNA. It "leaves open the possibility that bias may play a role – consciously or unconsciously – in the decision-making process."
Chief Blair says the difference here is "interesting," but believes it reflects differences in the kinds of crimes being committed by the two groups.
Non-whites are more likely to have warnings on their file than whites indicating they are considered violent or a suicide risk. These, along with notations for mental instability and escape risk, are entered by local police forces.
The differences remain even when looking at whites and non-whites with similar records.
For example, of those with criminal records for violent offences, non-whites are more likely to also have a notation for violent behaviour marked on their record.
Chief Blair believes the difference here simply reflects reality and that skin colour is not a factor. The warnings are "determined entirely by the behaviour and the crime in which they're charged."
Police routinely see these warnings while accessing CPIC records from computers in their cruisers and that helps "protect" officers, says Blair.
But Wortley says having more warnings can "lead to an exponential increase" in how harshly the justice system handles individuals. "It might justify further surveillance. It might justify holding somebody for bail. It may justify tougher treatment when individuals discover that the special designation exists."
Wortley connected the extra warnings on the records of non-whites with a study he and a colleague did of Toronto courts in the early '90s. It examined more than 1,800 criminal cases handled in two bail courts and determined that visible minorities were more likely to be detained before trial. And, if they were released, they were much more likely to have special conditions on their release, which gave police power to stop and search them, increasing "their chances of ultimately ending back in the justice system."
York University Professor Frances Henry and Carol Tator, researchers who have co-authored a book on racial profiling in Canada, also reviewed the data. In an e-mail, they say the differences in danger warnings are "in line with the racial profiling evidence shown in much of the literature both here and abroad in which extra surveillance and scrutiny especially of blacks is often emphasized."Said the judge: If "such notations are in the discretion of the police officer, that is troubling. But one would need to know a lot more before one could say that this amounts to direct/intentional discrimination."
The Star also asked the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers to review the differences. President Frank Walwyn echoed a point raised by everyone contacted for this story. His association would like to know more.
"While the numbers on their face seem to support anecdotal references to pervasive stereotyping and racism within the criminal justice system," said Walwyn, "one thing we can say definitively is that more information is needed in order to draw meaningful conclusions from these numbers."
I completely agree that the justice system is blind to colour and is discriminatory, as Aboriginals have a higher chance of being convicted of a crime, more likely to be denied bail and more likely to be imprisoned as prisons house a disproportionate amount of Aboriginals (18%) when they only account for 3% of the general population. Judges need to consider alternatives more for Aboriginals as opposed to prison. Prisons are inappropriate responses to Aboriginal crime. Crimes in Aboriginal communities reflects deeper problems such as addictions, poverty and unemployment, which need to be addressed. Aboriginals need culturally appropriate programming which integrates their culture and traditions, which prisons do not offer. They need to have the freedom to practice their religion and spirituality. Methods such as restorative justice initiatives, healing circles and healing lodges, etc. are more effective for Aboriginals than prisons where they are more likely to become involved in drugs and gangs as they are removed from their communities, their families and their culture. They have a need to belong and need protection in prison, so they often join a gang and are then more likely to re-offend when released. This is dangerous and does not make society any safer.