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Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Zero tolerance backfires on poor
Welfare council report: Domestic violence policy criminalizes poverty-stricken
Luiza Chwialkowska
National Post

OTTAWA - Zero tolerance for domestic violence may have backfired and now counts among "questionable government policies" that increase the "criminalization" of the poor and lead to an over-representation of low-income Canadians in prisons and jails, concludes a new report.

Low-income people are most likely to be picked up and charged with crimes, are also most likely to be denied bail, and are most likely to appear in court without adequate legal representation, states Justice and the Poor, a wide-ranging review of recent studies released yesterday by the National Council of Welfare.

Mandatory charges in domestic disputes where there is physical evidence of battery is an example of a well-intentioned policy that may deter middle-class men, but may aggravate the problems of poor families, the report says.

"Mandatory charges can have the effect of increasing wife abuse, especially when the husband is unemployed," states the report, citing research conducted in the United States.

"In the case of desperate men who have nothing to lose, no job and no money, these mandatory charges can make them worse and more violent," said Louise Dulude, a legal researcher and author of the study.

Similar concerns were raised by the 1995 report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in Ontario.

"Black women in Toronto said mandatory charge policies discouraged them from calling the police because they had no control over the consequences. Their husband could lose their job, and their whole family would suffer as a result," says Ms. Dulude.

Among its 21 recommendations for reform of the justice system, the report calls for independent research into the effects of mandatory charge policies in cases of domestic assault, and their repeal if necessary.

"This is an urgent matter that should be addressed as soon as possible," the study says.

The report also denounces the use of mandatory minimum sentences, used largely in the case of firearms crimes. The report would restrict their use to murder and high treason.

It also calls for coherent sentencing guidelines for judges to end "shocking disparities" in sentencing, the extension of legal aid to the working poor, and for a new system of fines that would reflect an offender's ability to pay.

Failure to appear before a judge and failure to pay fines are among the leading reasons for imprisonment in Canada, says the report.

"If you have the money, you can get out of it. If you are poor, you go to jail," said Ms. Dulude.

The rate of imprisonment for failure to pay fines ranged wildly in 1997-98 from 0.3 per 100,000 adult residents in Newfoundland to 60.7 per 10,000 in Alberta, according to Statistics Canada.

The report also calls for "bail interview officers" to help low-income people facing bail hearings.

"One of the main differences between accused people who are released and accused people who are detained is that the people who are kept in jail are unemployed," the study states.

Drug policies are another example of sanctions that affect the poor disproportionately, the report says, in part because of stronger police presence in poor neighbourhoods, and because middle-class drug users commit their crimes in private.

"People from all levels of society commit crimes, but crime enforcement resources are heavily concentrated on the close surveillance of young men in low-income neighbourhoods," the report states.

"Not surprisingly, the resulting crop of suspects picked up and charged by the police do not reflect the distribution of crimes so much as the distribution of poverty in our society."

The report also recommends that all Canadian police forces be accountable to impartial independent review bodies that would investigate complaints by private citizens.

The report emphasized that Canada is one of the safest countries in the world, and that governments should seek to enact alternatives to jail time for non-violent crimes.

The National Council of Welfare is a citizens advisory group to the federal Minister of Human Resources Development.

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