Submitted by Juanita Metzger
And while we're at it, let's also talk about prevention, addictions and compassion.
I suppose you're wondering, where am I going with all of this? Well, the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council recently held the 34th Annual Justice Dinner, an awareness-raising event about local justice issues. Our guest was The Honourable Justice Kofi Barnes, who started the very first Drug Treatment Court in 1998 in Toronto.
I was expecting a chronology and history about the initiation and implementation of the first Drug Treatment Court. However, I found myself leaning in a bit closer when Justice Barnes told his own personal story - how he was handed the task of finding alternative ways of dealing with the revolving door of people in courts and corrections who clearly had underlying addictions or mental health issues. Admittedly, fueled, in part, by a desire to preserve his career, and in part inspired by his own father, Justice Barnes spent 4 years developing an alternative 'problem solving court' which, 14 years later, has grown to more than 10 drug treatment and mental health courts in Canada.
What struck me most was Justice Barnes' insistence that we need to move beyond our narrow view of 'justice' as 'the letter of the law' in every case. Rather, 'justice' must find a balance for the person who has committed a crime, the victim and our community as a whole. Rightly, he claims that it serves none of these if we never deal with the root cause of a problem. Regular Smart on Crime guest blogger Frank Johnson, put it this way:
"Drug treatment and mental health treatment courts are two approaches where the particular needs of individuals that may have contributed to criminal behaviour are addressed in a supportive yet accountable environment. In these courts the emphasis is on preserving the dignity of those involved with crime by holding them accountable while providing them with the tools to make changes in their lives, where change is possible. This is a recognition that a 'cookie-cutter' approach to justice has not and will not reduce crime or the recidivism rate. It makes social and economic sense, as the more alternatives to prison we create, the more benefit we see to taxpayers by reducing the costs of crime."
Justice Barnes admits that he had a hard time convincing his colleagues in the courts, corrections and law enforcement communities that this approach could work. But gradually, as people from these systems had opportunities to participate in the alternative processes and saw the humanity present there, they became easy converts.
Justice Barnes' story of personal connection and the potential for system change has stuck with me now for days. In fact, it reminded me of this Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson "We need to talk about an injustice". While Stevenson is a lawyer in the southern United States and daily confronts the issue of race in the U.S Criminal Justice system, the parallels between his talk and that of Justice Barnes is not lost on me.
They both believe in the need for justice that is based on hope and tied to dignity and compassion. They both believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. They both believe that each of us has a basic fundamental human dignity that must be respected by law. They both believe that our whole community is made stronger when we use smart on crime approaches that address the greatest injustices.
While it's the more challenging place to be and to work, it will ultimately make us more human. And isn't that what we should all be working for?
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about the Honourable Justice Barnes' talk at the Justice Dinner. What has stuck with you? What inspired you or challenged you? Let us know.
In the meantime, watch the talk from Bryan Stevenson.