How Ontario's new Justice Centres are rethinking criminal justice

The demographics of Canada’s prison population are far out of line with the rest of Canada. As part of the Provocation Ideas Festival and the Toronto International Festival of Authors, Nahlah Ayed hosts a panel discussion on challenges facing the legal system, and how to build a better court.

'Every day in every court in this country, there are wrongful convictions,' says lawyer

Miriam Henry is a prosecutor at the Toronto Northwest Justice Centre — a new pilot program that integrates education, health care, and social services within the justice system, with the goal of getting at the root causes of criminal behaviour and preventing future crime. (Alex Lisman)

In Canada, roughly 32 per cent of people in federal prison are Indigenous, though Indigenous people make up five per cent of the population. It's a reality advocates, lawyers, and judges hope to change.

For the Toronto International Festival of Authors, and the Provocation Ideas Festival, CBC IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed hosted a panel discussion on an innovative new approach to criminal justice, and how to make the legal system more fair for everyone.

Ontario's Justice Centres are a new approach to criminal justice, combining courtroom accountability with education, health, and support programs.

Miriam Henry is an assistant Crown attorney at the Toronto Northwest Justice Centre. She points out that the people who are charged with crimes are often themselves victims of crime.

"They are a victim one day,  they're a witness the next day, they're an accused the day after. And so when you come into criminal justice, in some ways it doesn't matter from a young person's perspective how you come into criminal justice, you're traumatized… and so we have an obligation to break the cycle."

Part of that cycle includes wrongful convictions, according to lawyer Jonathan Rudin. 

Program Director with Aboriginal Legal Service, Jonathan Rudin argues there are 'dichotomous views' in how crime is defined. Society is sympathetic to victims but not to criminals. 'That's a false dichotomy because many people in the criminal justice system have, in fact, been victims.' (Alex Lisman)

Rudin argues delays in traditional courtrooms due to backlogs and COVID lead people to plead guilty. 

"You can wait months for a trial. Or you can plead guilty… every day in every court in this country, there are wrongful convictions after wrongful convictions and people are pleading guilty because that's the only thing to do."

Judge Mary Hogan tells defendants that the Justice Centre program is based on patience and understanding.

"I say, 'look, this is different. It isn't like the traditional court. This is not a place where I'm concerned about punishing you and forcing things. I'm here along with the team to help you. What do you need? What could we do for you'?"

Ontario Judge Mary Hogan argues imprisoning people with mental health or addiction issues is detrimental. 'They need to be elsewhere, not in our system.' (Alex Lisman)

"So I say, 'This is what we're all about and you never have to be concerned if you miss a court date. I'm not going to issue a bench warrant. Just, it would be helpful if you could call your worker and let them know that you're still around and alive because we're concerned about you. We're patient people, so it's different.'"


Guests in this episode:

Judge Mary Hogan is a provincial judge and former Deputy Attorney General of Ontario.

Miriam Henry is an assistant Crown attorney at the Toronto Northwest Justice Centre.

Jonathan Rudin is a lawyer and program director with Aboriginal Legal Services.

*This episode was produced by Greg Kelly with help from Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

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