This is Smart Justice

This is not Smart Justice © William Waitzman, with permission

Smart Justice is a new way of addressing criminal justice issues that solves the problems of crime rather than simply punishing the criminals: it addresses the profound connections of crime to mental health, addiction, employment, education, housing and social inclusion.

Smart Justice doesn’t spend money on ineffective responses to crime. Instead, it  clears clogged courtrooms and overcrowded prisons, supports victims and protects families, empowers communities and improves safety through programs proven to reduce crime and help people lead law-abiding lives.

Smart Justice does not challenge the use of the criminal justice system in the limited number of cases where individuals may have to be confined for reasons of public safety. Meticulous rules of evidence and sentencing subject cases like these to the highest standards of fairness and respect for human rights—a time-consuming and expensive process that is absolutely necessary when this system is used to respond to crime. And when as a last resort a prison sentence is unavoidable to protect the community from serious harm, incarceration must include —and this is key to the Smart Justice approach— a strong component of treatment, training and re-integration support: there is clear evidence these reduce re-offending more than prison without interventions.

But most cases in the criminal justice system do not involve serious harm. As one former police chief observed, “Up to 80 percent of incidents requiring police intervention are better classified as social or mental health issues rather than criminal ones.” Yet most of them reach the courts.

And so Smart Justice stands for a wide array of other suitable interventions: within the community, outside the “traditional” criminal justice system, proven to be just as or more effective than courts and prisons at achieving safety, victim recovery, offender rehabilitation and reintegration, community satisfaction, better ongoing relations. Community treatment orders for the mentally ill; intensive supervision with drug treatment; community supervision with victim reparation, pro-social life-skills counselling, vocational and educational programs; participation in victim and community resolution processes: these are some of the programs showing greater success at reducing re-offending.  They are also much less expensive.

Smart Justice looks beyond the criminal justice system when it recognizes that certain objectives cannot be achieved through courts and prisons: deterring people from committing crime; providing safe care for those who have been harmed; inspiring personal remorse and responsibility; generating reconciliation, resolution, family protection, community trust; ensuring offenders have the means of improving their lives and relationships in the community.  Smart Justice transfers the resources for these important goals to communities themselves and to other government and service organizations, which are able to do it better.

Those working from a Smart Justice standpoint carefully compare the costs and results of potential justice responses and ensure that they are relayed to the police, the Crown and the judiciary—and to the public. This way, everyone has the information they need to choose what the best available evidence indicates is the most effective intervention.

Smart Justice is an emerging movement, especially in countries that have used prison sentences as a way of conveying a “tough on crime” message rather than strictly as a means for confining the violent, or as a measure of last resort.  There is now alarming evidence that such policies have had devastating impacts on those societies. At the same time, countries with lower incarceration rates and lower costs are not seeing higher rates of crime, while also avoiding this further damage to victims, families and communities.

Canada can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring these results.