Court- and police-imposed behavioural conditions on people can create a cycle of criminalization and incarceration for vulnerable populations, according to a new report from the Pivot Legal Society that calls for better tailoring of conditions to individual offences.
Project Inclusion, to be released on Wednesday, is a broad look at the effect specific laws and policies in policing, health care and the court system have on people who live in poverty, are dependent on drugs or alcohol, and the homeless.
Over two years, researchers and lawyers with the Vancouver-based legal advocacy group convened six focus groups and conducted 76 one-on-one interviews with people with lived experience from across British Columbia. They also interviewed and surveyed more than 100 health and social service providers.
The report says some conditions – the term for court- or police-imposed rules that people who are not incarcerated must follow – “do not properly reflect how the intersections of poverty, substance use, mental health, disability, and racism shape people’s lives and daily activities.”
A condition on someone living with alcoholism not to consume alcohol, or on someone with a drug addiction not to possess drug paraphernalia, criminalizes addiction and sets that person up to fail, the report cites as examples. Those conditions can also prohibit someone from carrying harm reduction supplies amid an unprecedented overdose crisis in Canada, and prevent people from admitting drug use or seeking help.
A geographic area restriction, colloquially known as a red zone, bars a person from setting foot in an entire area. This can prohibit the person from accessing services, housing and being close to their community.
“The conditions we address here are not those designed to stop a convicted sex offender from loitering in parks, nor are they about restricting a violent offender’s access to a weapon,” the report says. “The conditions we examine in Project Inclusion are what we call ‘behavioural conditions’ – conditions that control the everyday activities of people who are working in the grey economy, experiencing homelessness, and/or using substances.”
Darcie Bennett, director of strategy at Pivot, said conditions should be tailored to individual offences and imposed with public safety in mind.
A more specific “no go” condition, for example, can prohibit a thief from going to the store from which he stole, or a violent offender from a victim’s home.
From 2005-14, B.C. saw an overall decrease of 19 per cent in the number of completed criminal cases, while the number of completed cases including at least one breach of a condition increased by 10.8 per cent over the same period, according to the report. Breaches represented more than 40 per cent of all criminal court case matters and can result in anywhere from a monetary fine to jail time.
The report also said there is little accountability around the imposition of conditions owing to a lack of consolidated data. There is no way to track which court-imposed conditions are being breached, on a statistical level, as it would require reviewing every breach allegation individually, the report said.
Police-imposed conditions, meanwhile, are not logged in a way that can be searched based on types of conditions imposed.
The report’s recommendations include: not imposing abstinence conditions on people living with addictions unless necessary to protect the safety of a victim, witness or of the public; eliminating criminal sanctions for non-violent breaches of behavioural conditions; and updating Ministry of Justice databases so that breaches are recorded and searchable based on type of condition breached.