How do Black youth find their voice in the criminal justice system?

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Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Kevin Morris was in his early 20s when he was chased down by a non-uniformed officer. He was facing up to four years of jail time for possession of a firearm, but the judge gave a one-year sentence after reviewing cultural assessment, which detailed the ways systemic anti-Black racism had impacted his life and led him closer to the criminal justice system.

"The history of colonialism, slavery, policies and practices of segregation, intergenerational trauma, and both overt and systemic racism that continue to affect Black Canadians today," said Justice Shaun Nakatsuru in his court decision, "Anti-Black racism has shaped [Morris'] life in a way that has brought [him] into the criminal court. It has negatively impacted [Morris'] opportunities in life to date."

Court documents show that Morris was raised by a single mother in a neighbourhood with high levels of violence and criminal activity. He was stabbed twice in his youth and never graduated high school. He was placed in a special needs school, but it was unsafe to go since he had to travel through rivaling neighbourhoods. In 2013, he was diagnosed with PTSD and paranoia after being stabbed and critically wounded for a third time.

Details about his life, interactions with Children's Aid Society, how he faced racial discrimination in school, and being incarcerated in his youth was all included in his cultural assessment -- which is a collection of records and reports that shows how systemic racism brought them before the court. The judge gets to review this assessment before handing down a sentence.

The Crown has appealed Nakatsuru's decision, and Ontario's top court will soon decide if cultural assessments can be used for Black offenders to get their sentences reduced. 

Although Morris' case has started a shift in how race could be weighed in sentencing, his story is also a testament to how Black youth fare in society and what paths lead them in to the criminal justice system.

Black youth face a number of challenges navigating the systems of our world -- whether that be educational, social services, employment, and without a doubt, the large beast that's known as the criminal justice system. A recent study by Kanika Wortley, a criminology researcher at Windsor University, found that Black youth were less likely to be referred to pre-charge diversion programs when compared to white youth who were facing the same crimes. 

This was the first Canadian study to examine the racial bias in policing and how that impacts Black youth. The sample size in Wortley's study consisted of nearly 6,500 cases from 2007-2013 in an undisclosed police precinct, which the Toronto Star later confirmed and identified as the Durham Regional Police Service data. 

This research provided an important benchmark on how Black youth fare in the criminal justice system. It's a small-scale, but illuminating finding on exactly how our youth are hurdling challenges and barriers in a system that's been facing a lot of controversy in recent months. Pre-charge diversion programs are an important resource for youth to not only divert court charges, and entanglements with the criminal justice system, but to also ensure that they stay out of the criminal justice system for good. 

Jody Dunn has worked with Peacebuilders International for five years, supporting youth who are in conflict with law. Her organization uses a method called youth circles, which invites the youth involved, their families, community members and anyone impacted by the conflict to participate in the restorative justice practice. 

Youth circles have their roots in Indigenous traditions known as talking circles, which has been used to invite all members of those who were involved or impacted by conflict and discuss how to take accountability and repair that relationship. 

Although talking circles used in this program were inspired by Indigenous traditions, this method also appears in Indigenous cultures across Africa. The most similar is Sankofa, which derived from the Akan people of Ghana, it translates to "to reach back and get it." The symbol can be described as a bird looking backwards while holding an egg in its mouth. It represents the idea of taking what society has learned now, and nurturing it in future generations so that lessons will be learned and the world can progress on an enlightened future.

"Restorative justice makes sense to me," said Dunn, the restorative justice manager at Peacebuilders International. "I've never really understood punitive measures. I think if we are really looking at true rehabilitation and reintegration then there has to be a holistic approach."

She notes that oftentimes, participants reach her doors after facing tremendous barriers in the education system, and they're often exhausted and lack space to amplify their voice. That's why one of the main goals of the program is to help youth find autonomy and reclaim their authentic selves.

"It becomes this stage where Black youth are able to have their voices validated and be able to speak without that judgement," said Dunn. 

Nestled at the Jarvis Youth Courthouse in Toronto, Ontario, young people facing charges are referred to Peacebuilders with the intent that they can divert court involvement. The program involves six weeks of group sessions, then six weeks of individual assessments, and a self-reflective report that the judge overseeing their case will review. 

Dunn says it's difficult to measure their levels of success, since recidivism isn't the only indication the program had an impact on the individual. While they'll have participants who are actively engaged and show progress, they could also be facing charges at a different courthouse that Dunn and her staff know nothing about. 

"We constantly talk about doing everything from a youth-centred perspective [and] lose that client vs staff-authoritative position, and say you're actually the one that's in control, you're the one who determines what your goals are, not me. I'm here to connect you to those resources, and remind you you have all of those tools in your tool belt, but I'm not here to tell you which direction you need to head," she said.

Not only has Peacebuilders helped over 100 people, it also ensured a long-lasting impact for Black youth in conflict with the law by restoring their confidence, autonomy, and reclaiming their narratives. 

Advocates around Canada are seeking governmental response to the gaps in resources for Black youth marginalized by the criminal justice system. DeRico Symonds, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a community advocate well-versed in youth and social justice issues. He manages a team at the City of Halifax dedicated to supporting marginalized youth impacted or involved in gang violence. 

"I don't believe that people just wake up and want to start doing illegal things, there's a whole set of societal things that a person goes through to go down that path," he said. 

"It's important to have culturally specific programs, or staff that understand the particular situations that Black or Indigenous young people may have endured in the criminal justice system."

Not only are culturally specific programs likely to make a greater impact on youth, they're also more cost effective. Especially with recent calls to reduce police budgets across the country, programs like Peacebuilders or the Youth Advocate Program in Halifax, could benefit from more funding to increase their reach and capacity.

"There's been a historical and a systemic disinvestment in Black communities in Canada, no matter where you go. If we're looking at it from a pure, economical standpoint, we can do way better. It's too much money to incarcerate a young person with, as we know it, little to no rehabilitation actually happening for them," said Symonds.

Lidia Abraha is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, whose work has appeared in VICE Canada, NOW Magazine, The Canadian Press and Exclaim! She is the recipient of rabble.ca's 2020 Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship. Her work at rabble focuses on some of the issues most urgently affecting racialized and marginalized communities, notably racism in the criminal justice and policing system.

Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash

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