'Striking, shocking and saddening': Study finds Black men overrepresented in Ontario jails
SASKATOON -- For close to 20 years, Kofi Hope has been mentoring and working with Black youth in Toronto, including those who’ve been incarcerated. And he says Canada has a long way to go in addressing the social issues behind why “hurt people hurt people.”
The former executive director of the non-profit Centre for Young Black Professionals urgently wants to see more investment in programs for those who’ve done jail time, but also investment in schools in low-income areas and more job opportunities.
“It's a huge amount of work and we just don't have enough resources or frankly, care in society for people once someone becomes a ‘criminal.’ We justify having almost no empathy for them.”
Advocates like him and growing body of research in Canada have suggested a throughline between “locking someone up in a cage” and mitigating issues such as underfunded schools and lack of employment opportunities. But researchers say in order to understand these issues adequately they need racial statistics on incarcerated Canadians, which are rarely released publicly.
New race-based data is offering a rare glimpse into the disproportionate incarceration rates for Black Canadians, with authors of a new study suggesting the rates stem directly from widespread and historical inequality.
Nearly one out of every 15 young Black men in Ontario has experienced jail time, compared to approximately one-in-70 young white men, according to public data published in the journal Race and Justice. Young Black men, whose ages range from 18 to 34, had the highest rates of being in the prison system -- 7,000 per 100,000, compared to 1,400 per 100,000 for white males in the same age range.
“Those figures are, for me, striking, shocking and saddening,” Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, criminologist and study author, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. He said the data shows how “starkly overrepresented young Black men are in these correctional statistics.”
Black men overall were also five times as likely as white men to be incarcerated and were more likely to live in low-income neighbourhoods in Ontario. The study also found Black men spent more days behind bars than white men too, with the former group also experiencing higher rates of being transferred from a provincial to a federal institution.
“We said that various forms of racism, structural, systemic and institutional racism have undoubtedly produced these disparities. There's no doubt about that in my mind,” said Owusu-Bempah, a University of Toronto assistant sociology professor.
Researchers from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, McMaster University, St. Michael’s Hospital and ICES, a non-profit clinical research institute, compiled their findings based on Ontario home address data, 2006 census information and data of every Ontario inmate released in 2010, which included self-reported race-based data.
The authors said the fact that most recent prison racial data was a decade old spoke to the rarity of public, race-based information in general in Canada.
The data from provincial correctional facilities, provided by the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General, was extensive: information stemmed from 45,956 men and 6,357 women who came from prisons that housed offenders sentenced to less than two years, as well as those awaiting bail or trial.
ALL OF SOCIETY PAYS FOR INCARCERATION: ADVOCATES
Owusu-Bempah’s research team, which included researchers looking into public health issues, attributed racial disparities in incarceration rates to a lack of resources in low-income communities, which commonly had inadequately funded transit systems, schools, libraries, and hospitals.
The study also showed people in these same types of neighbourhoods tend to experience higher levels of crime and victimization, with these areas seeing an overrepresentation of Black residents being stopped and searched and being arrested for minor offences.
It directly attributed the high incarceration rates to two centuries of chattel slavery in Canada and systemic anti-Black racism in Ontario demonstrated by harsher criminal justice outcomes for Black defendants; underfunded schools in neighbourhoods where higher proportions of Black residents live; and higher rates of child apprehension rates and school suspensions for Black children.
“Criminalization and marginalization is a result of, from my perspective as a sociologist, social marginalization,” study author Owusu-Bempah told CTVNews.ca.
Hope, a senior fellow at the Wellesley Institute which works to address social determinants of health, said the need to address these disparities is urgent because it causes huge disruptions to both a person’s immediate circle, and to society in general.
“I [also] think there's a huge impact for communities when you have folks returning to same neighbourhood and you don't have the services or support in place that have the capacity to help them with that reintegration.”
Owusu-Bempah agreed and said without that support, they’ll have a much harder time reintegrating into society, finding work and housing.
“It means that the likelihood that they'll engage in future crime increases and the likelihood that they will rely on social assistance increases,” he said. “And ultimately, the cost of incarceration is borne by society as a whole.”
Studies from the criminal justice non-for-profit John Howard Society of Canada have shown that the total (federal, provincial and municipal) public spending on criminal justice in Canada per year is about $20 billion, with about $5 billion of that spent on prisons and jails. This works out to about $550 in taxes per person in Canada per year.
Advocates said that the money saved by preventing and reducing incarceration rates could be reinvested in some of these low-income neighbourhoods.
NOT A U.S. PHENOMENON: PROF
The study authors had one big warning to any Canadians who feel “morally superior to Americans when it comes to race relations.”
“Common sentiment suggests that the violence, segregation and oppression experienced by Black people in America have not been a feature of the Canadian experience,” the researchers said, citing people’s knowledge that Canada was the final destination of parts of the Underground Railroad.
Owusu-Bempah said this study’s findings showed Canadians shouldn’t believe the country has a better standing than the U.S. when it comes to systemic discrimination and disproportional representation of incarcerated Black men.
“We think about the racial disparities in criminal justice and incarceration as an American phenomenon… but our figures demonstrate very clearly the patterns and the trends of race and justice that garner a lot of attention in the American context are alive and well here.”