Here's why we can abolish most of the criminal justice system now without endangering public safety

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Properly assessing calls to defund the police and other carceral institutions means a proper reckoning with what these systems are actually doing -- not what we imagine them to be doing.

If more people were aware of these realities, they would realize we can start abolishing most of it right now with little threat to "public safety," and with community resources for care and support instead to improve social well-being.

Police and penal preservationists (police, politicians and some criminologists) insist that these systems are all about keeping us safe. And they especially wield fears of personal threats of physical violence and responses to physical violence of various sorts.

In fact, however, most crimes in Canada do not involve physical violence or harm.

We can look at crime records over several years (while recognizing that many criminologists have come to conclude that "crime" is not an especially useful way of talking about social harms).

Crimes against property: 88,664 charges or 22.87 per cent in 2013; 85,301 charges or 22.50 per cent in 2014; and 76,356 charges or 23.28 per cent in 2015.

Most of the activities processed through criminal justice systems in Canada do not fit the image of fear and personal threat that preservationists portray. Most crime involves property offenses (typically low level or low cost), victimless crimes, consumption offenses and administrative offenses. These might involve no physical harm, and may, in fact, have no victims at all.

In 2018, non-violent crime accounted for 79 per cent of police-reported Criminal Code incidents (excluding traffic).

While obviously these will involve activities that are of concern to people, they do not involve personal physical injury. There are other ways to deal with property crimes than policing and incarceration. We can also think about ways to address what are often issues of class, poverty, or economic need in relation to property crimes.

Another 13 per cent of criminalized activity in Canada is made up of drug offenses, and a further 13 per cent involves traffic offenses.

Crimes against the person: 91,033 charges or 23.49 per cent in 2013; 87,887 charges or 23.19 per cent in 2014; and 76,888 charges or 23.44 per cent in 2015.

These are overall numbers, but 14 per cent of this is common assault and uttering threats. These may not involve any physical harm to the person at all.

Only 0.7 per cent consists of "homicide and related." And as we know, many of these are singular events that will not be repeated by the person responsible in the absence of police. Locking them up is not about keeping us safe (which is not to say no harm occurred, only that the carceral systems cannot necessarily claim to have stopped additional such harms).

Among these cases are also instances of women who are incarcerated for defending themselves against a violent partner. 

Addressing sexual assault is often put forward by preservationists. A study of criminal justice outcomes over a six year period (2009-2014) found that around one in 10 (12 per cent) of police-reported sexual assaults led to a criminal conviction, while seven per cent resulted in a custody sentence. Only 21 per cent total went to court. It is well known that many victims do not report at all due to mistrust of the system.

Administration of justice offenses: 85,554 charges or 22.07 per cent in 2013; 84,213 charges or 22.22 per cent in 2014; and 74,811 charges or 22.81 per cent in 2015.

Many criminalized activities involve administration of justice offenses. These are matters of systems maintenance, not harm to individuals or society.

Administration of justice cases involve matters related to case proceedings (such as failure to appear in court, failure to comply with a court order, breach of probation and unlawfully at large). They account for more than one-fifth of cases completed in adult criminal courts.

In addition to administration of justice cases, theft and impaired driving are the most frequent cases in adult courts in Canada.

The financial costs

This is the basis on which the Canadian state has built a vast infrastructure of containment and control -- to punish people for acts that involve no physical harm to persons, have no victims, involve personal consumption choices, or restrain people who have not been convicted of anything. These are hardly the structures of public safety or security that preservationists make them out to be.

At the same time, containing and controlling people on this basis requires that incredible social wealth, labour and services be diverted from community resources and infrastructures. 

In 2014-2015, expenditures on federal corrections in Canada totaled approximately $2.63 billion. Since 2005-2006, expenditures on federal corrections have increased 55 per cent, from $1.63 billion to $2.63 billion. This represents an increase of 51.5 per cent in constant dollars.

Provincial and territorial expenditures totalled an additional cost of about $2.21 billion in 2014-15. This represents an increase of 52.7 per cent since 2005-2006. In constant dollars, this is an increase of 49.3 per cent.

Abolitionists have long pointed out that social resources would be better used supporting community care, harm reduction, health care, housing and community centres.

Carceral institutions are a social transfer

Social resources used to punish people in the way the Canadian state does represent a social transfer away from necessary social services that can make society and our communities healthier, safer, and more secure, towards institutions and practices that reproduce social inequality, and often reflect lobbying priorities of boards of trade and business improvement associations locally -- a transfer away from resources that might be most useful for poor and racialized people and communities.

Systems of racism, colonialism and class

Carceral systems in settler colonial states like Canada are not institutions of justice as preservationists claim. In reality, they are institutions of domination and control which operate on a basis of racialization and social stratification within a context of social class inequality. As only one example, the prisoner population in Canada had increased by 7.1 per cent over the five-year period up to 2013, with much of this increase coming from oppressed groups, such as Indigenous and Black people.

We can see this too if we look at incarceration rates for women, which increased by 60 per cent between 2003 and 2013, with marginalized Indigenous and Black women again being disproportionately represented in the Canadian prison population.

The majority of Black women are incarcerated for drug offenses, including so-called drug-trafficking, which many of them pursued, according to interviews with prisoners, in an effort to rise above poverty.

Indigenous women are Canada's fastest growing imprisoned population, with the rate rising by over 100 per cent between 2001 and 2016.


Abolitionists emphasize that penal systems (police through prisons) do not do what they claim they do. They are not institutions of public safety, they do not protect us. Realizing that a very small proportion of criminal justice activity actually deals with stopping or even responding to violence should help us better contextualize calls for defunding. 

Decriminalizing drug use, survival strategies, sex work and other activities authorities view as nuisances would allow for defunding and dismantling large parts of carceral systems right now.

Knowing that the carceral system serves functions other than those preservationists claim for it should be at the forefront when we think about defunding those systems, including police. And, it should cause us to ask what exactly we are funding in the first place.

Eva Ureta is a founding member of Anti-Police Power Surrey who lives and works in Surrey, helping educate abolition politics through various actions/demos demanding the dismantling of policing in Surrey. With an education in criminology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Eva continually focuses on racial injustices across cultures manifested in the lives of women in the Downtown Eastside.​

Jeff Shantz is a longtime union member, currently with Local 5 of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators (FPSE, B.C. Federation of Labour). He is a founding organizer with Anti-Police Power Surrey ([email protected]), a grassroots community group in Surrey (Unceded Coast Salish territories). He teaches on corporate crime and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. His publications include Manufacturing Phobias: The Political Production of Fear in Theory and Practice (University of Toronto Press), and the Crisis and Resistance trilogy (Punctum Books).

Image: Larry Farr/Unsplash

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