New numbers from the provincial Department of Justice show an over-representation of African Nova Scotian and Indigenous people in the province's jail system, particularly for youths in custody.
The numbers showed that in 2014-2015, about 16 per cent of youth sentenced to a youth correctional facility were African Nova Scotian and 12 per cent were Indigenous.
For adults sentenced to jail, about 14 per cent were African Nova Scotian and seven per cent were Aboriginal.
Smaller percentage of overall population
For youth and adults in remand — meaning they were in jail but hadn't been convicted — between 10 and 11 per cent were either African Nova Scotian or Aboriginal.
African Nova Scotians and Indigenous represent about two and four per cent of the population, respectively.
New Democrats question minister
The provincial NDP obtained the numbers from the Department of Justice and questioned Minister Diana Whalen about them in the final session of the season at Province House on Friday.
NDP justice critic Marian Mancini says the data points to systemic racism.
"I really do believe that. I don't think that's shocking to anybody," she said.
The retired legal aid lawyer said examples of systemic racism are when African Nova Scotians are stopped while driving or in stores without just cause.
Justice Minister Diana Whalen said she thought the over-representation is a "long-standing problem."
"I think it reflects racism. I do think it reflects poverty, educational opportunities," she said.
Whalen says things such as the inquiry for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children should help.
"I think that's going to have some wide-reaching impacts," she said.
Whalen says she recognizes minorities do not see themselves represented in institutions such as schools, police and the courts.
"I think it's beyond representation though," said El Jones, an educator and activist who works with prisoners.
"I don't think you can say the problem with racism in the system is we just need more black guards or more black judges. I think that's one of the parts."
She traces some of the root causes to issues such as lack of jobs, educational opportunities and proper housing, and insufficient supports for people on parole who are attempting to leave the jail system.
Jones says she's most concerned about the high numbers of youth in the justice department numbers.
"I think that's a tragedy," she said.
Jones says youth who have a criminal record are at high risk of reoffending. She has learned of people in the criminal justice system with records from when they were as young as 12.
"Surely, we don't think that they're hardened criminals and that they need to be punished," she said.
"I would hope, as a society, we believe that these are children in need of a great deal of help and intervention."
How juries are receiving people
Jones said she is also concerned with how black defendants are treated in the court system and whether judges and juries have the background to understand their situations.
"Is the problem in our communities or is the problem in the court system? And what can we do to change that?" she asked.
"I think that's a conversation that very much needs to be had about how people are being represented, how juries are receiving people, how judges are sentencing people."