Image: Connor Tarter/flickr

Women are going to jail in Canada, especially Indigenous women, because they are unable to pay fines for small infractions. So says the Calgary Elizabeth Fry Society. And once a woman is put into the justice system, she often runs into complications that prevent her getting out.

The situation would be much worse if it weren’t for the 24 non-profit Elizabeth Fry Societies, who offer hope, counselling and practical help to women caught up in the justice system. Most of their clients are women and youth who face charges or jail time for petty crimes, crimes of poverty and survival, such as stealing food, public urination, shoplifting, panhandling or soliciting.

“Poverty is the real criminal here,” said Katelyn Lucas, executive director of the Calgary Elizabeth Fry Society. Although Canada repealed its vagrancy laws in 1974, some cities have passed nuisance bylaws that target behaviour done mainly by homeless people, or people with very few resources, such as shoplifting food.

Elizabeth Fry’s volunteer court workers help 12,000 people a year in Southern Alberta, said Lucas. They spend most of their efforts negotiating — trying to divert clients out of Canada’s formal legal system and into programs such as paying reparations, restorative justice, community service, and mental health or detox programs.

Lucas offered some statistics. In 2011, 1,800 women were placed in custody throughout Alberta, three-quarters of them (76 per cent) for minor offences, such as such as common assault, theft under $5,000, fraud, or mischief. Women got caught on Calgary’s public transit without a ticket. They shoplifted warm clothes for their children. They did dumb things out of desperation and got caught.

Elizabeth Fry workers know that 80 per cent of their clients are mothers, and a mother who goes to jail is liable to lose her child(ren) — even if the sentence is less than 30 days, as most are. As with men, many vulnerable women suffer mental health issues, which better addressed medically than through the courts.

Also, once a woman is in prison, she’s more subject to “administration of justice” penalties, which can extend her sentence or even lead to more charges. Administrative charges (fines) can also send a woman to jail in the first place, where she earns $90 a day credit towards the fine. Half (48 per cent) the charges against women are administrative.

“I’m a single mom with three kids,” says a client on an Elizabeth Fry Society brochure. “We had an apartment and I was working. My car insurance expired and I didn’t have the money to pay it.

“I got caught [driving without insurance] and couldn’t pay the fine. Now I am in jail. I lost my kids, my place and my job. Now what do I do?”

What the local Elizabeth Fry Society will do, if the client asks, is work with her to reunite her family, and rebuild her life with more security. “It’s all about starting over,” said Katelyn Lucas, and the Elizabeth Fry Society has the programs and local connections to help women do that.

On the other hand, she said, keeping someone in jail overnight costs a lot more than the $90 credit she earns towards her fine. Lucas pointed to Ontario’s “Safe Streets Act,” passed by Mike Harris’s government in Ontario, which created heavy fines ($60 – 500) for nuisance infractions.

Poor people couldn’t pay the fines and they didn’t have any place else to go, so they stayed on the streets. Not only was the Act ineffective, it cost the province more than $1 million a year.

Elizabeth Fry Societies take a different tack: using an approach called restorative justice (RJ), they help clients build happier, healthier lives that keep them away from having to cheat or steal to survive. They help youth understand how they’ve hurt people, and make amends.

RJ is rooted in Indigenous traditions, which treat transgressions with healing, not punishment. When both offended and offender are willing — say, the store owner and the graffitti artist — RJ brings them together to try to re-build mutual trust and sympathy, usually with the support of the wider community.

RJ is particularly helpful with the 20 per cent of provincial and 30 percent of federal women prisoners who identify themselves as Indigenous — a shocking six to seven times their proportion in the general public. Sweats, drumming, visits from the Elders, and reconnecting with family and friends all help them build self-esteem and resilience for their release.

Indeed, Elizabeth Fry Societies can show all their programs are effective at saving costs as well as lives — that providing housing and counselling costs between 10 and 15 per cent of keeping a person in shelters and jail. Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) has been so effective at advancing justice for women that in the last two years she has won the Order of Canada and been appointed to the Canadian Senate — where she will no doubt continue to raise these issues.

Elizabeth Fry Societies (and John Howard Societies) have gone where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls every resident of Canada to go — towards reconciliation, the recognition and resolution of systemic unfairness, and the righting of wrongs as part of building a shared society where every person feels they belong. Seventeen of the TRC’s calls to action involve the justice system. Elizabeth Fry Societies are leaders in mapping the way.

Image: Connor Tarter/flickr

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...