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Opinion: More jail time is not the solution for sexual assault

It's not uncommon to hear cries for longer jail sentences for sex assault, like in the recent U.S. case of Brock Turner. But Constance Backhouse, a lawyer who has studied Canadian sexual assault legislation for decades, argues jail is not the answer.
(CBC)

Jail time won't end sexual assault. 

That's the conclusion Constance Backhouse has made after decades of working in Canadian sexual assault law.

She used to rally for more people to go to jail for sexual assault, but she says 40 years of attempts to reform the law haven't proven fruitful. 

People at the Calgary courthouse in August, 2016, call on a judge to impose a 12-year sentence on two brothers who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting and kidnapping a teen girl. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"We're not really further ahead. More women are not coming forward with reports. They are suffering terribly when they go through the trials. And we're not getting more convictions and we're not getting longer sentences, and when we do they don't seem to make much difference. So, I think the time has come to rethink."

Backhouse, a feminist scholar and University of Ottawa Research Chair on the Sexual Assault Legislation of Canada, says her ultimate goal is to end sexual assault, and putting people in jail hasn't done that. She sees no evidence that it deters rapists from reoffending, nor that it prevents others from committing sexual assault. 

Instead, she says the adversarial court system convinces accused that they did nothing wrong, even if convicted, because the job of their attorneys is to weaken the case of the victim. 

Constance Backhouse is a University of Ottawa law professor. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"Perpetrators of sexual assault, more than any other people in jail, deny that what they did was a crime. They haven't learned anything."

And, Backhouse says, the adversarial court system does not allow for conversations about, nor better understanding of, consent. 

While she admits she doesn't know what the exact solution is, Backhouse would rather see money go to rehabilitation and attempts to understand, and prevent, sexual assault, than to locking up offenders. Jail just allows them to become more angry, she says, more convinced of their innocence — and puts them at risk of being sexually assaulted themselves. 

Click the "play" button above to hear the interview with Constance Backhouse. 

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