Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told a House of Commons committee that Indigenous and racialized people experienced “really bad results” in the federal criminal justice system.
He spoke at a meeting of the standing committee on public safety on Monday where members of Parliament asked him to lay out a clear path to address the systemic racism within the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), responsible for administering the country’s federal prisons.
The committee met to discuss Mr. Blair’s mandate letter and to review the Office of the Correctional Investigator’s annual report, tabled in Parliament last week.
Both Jack Harris, the NDP’s public safety critic, and Liberal MP Pam Damoff pressed the minister for a timeline to address issues with the prison system.
“I think we need to have timelines clearly defined," Mr. Blair said. "We’re working through that.” He also spoke of the government’s Speech from the Throne, which promised reforms to address those issues.
The calls follow a Globe and Mail investigation, published last month, that found the CSC’s risk assessments are biased against Black and Indigenous inmates and perpetuating systemic racism.
“We know that Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in the Canadian justice system," Mr. Blair said at the committee, "and we are prepared to make significant actions, both in investment and legislation, in order to change that.”
Earlier this year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator estimated Indigenous and Black people represented close to 30 per cent and 10 per cent of inmates respectively – but they only account for roughly 5 per cent and 4 per cent of the Canadian population, according to the 2016 census.
In its report, The Globe looked at the CSC’s use of custodial risk assessments, standardized tests that estimate an inmate’s risk to public safety and likelihood of successfully reintegrating. That investigation focused on two scores: an inmate’s security level, which informs the prison they’ll go to and the programming they’ll access, and the reintegration score, which plays a role during parole determinations.
The analysis found that after accounting for factors such as age, offence severity, criminal history and whether or not the inmate was serving a life sentence, Black men were nearly 24 per cent more likely than white men to end up with the worst security level at admission.
Meanwhile, Indigenous men were almost 30 per cent more likely than white men to receive the poorest reintegration score during their time in custody. The examination also found both groups were less likely than white men to reoffend after accounting for their reintegration scores.
In response to The Globe’s investigation, last week MPs from all parties on the public safety committee passed a motion to study systemic discrimination in prison, including inmates' risk assessments. The committee will report its findings to the House.
Several levels of the federal government have since responded to The Globe’s report. In previous statements, spokespeople for the CSC said they were working to eliminate systemic barriers in corrections; Mr. Blair’s office said it would address the overrepresentation of Indigenous and racialized people in the justice system; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said more had to be done to combat systemic racism in prisons.
Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger appeared at the public safety committee on Monday to testify about his office’s annual report. He took questions about the bias in the CSC’s risk assessment, a problem he said the agency has been aware of for years.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the CSC had not done enough to ensure its psychological risk assessments were reliable when it came to Indigenous inmates, and ordered the agency to study the issue.
Given that decision, and the numerous reports by the Office of the Correctional Investigator and the Office of the Auditor-General, the CSC should have taken action on its assessments sooner, Dr. Zinger told the committee.
“I so wish there would be more movement on my recommendations, so that down the road there would be fewer class-action lawsuits or articles in The Globe and Mail or responses to the Supreme Court of Canada," he said. “We’ve been saying that actuarial tools are perpetuating systemic discrimination in corrections. We’ve been saying it for years, even prior to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision."
"Now we’re two years out from when the decision was rendered and there is still no definite action on behalf of [CSC],” he said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.