Racism and Systemic Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System

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Themes: Systemic Racism; Systemic Discrimination; Social Determinants of Health; Policing; Custody; Incarceration; Colonialism; Reintegration; Release Planning

Acknowledgement: This research document was reviewed by Kelsie Zerebeski, she holds a B.A Hons., an M.A. in Criminal Justice, and is a Research Consultant for the Saskatchewan First Nations Family & Community Institute Inc. She is the author of “Incarceration and Re-entry for Provincial Prisoners: Is there Hope?" and her research background and areas of expertise concern the effects of imprisonment, re-entry/reintegration, desistance from crime, and the experiences of former prisoners. The research document was reviewed for comprehensiveness and accuracy to ensure quality and validity of the research. The information in this document is current as of March 2024.

Executive Summary: There is an extensive body of research and evidence that demonstrates Systemic Racism and Discrimination are deeply integrated within the criminal justice system. Systemic Racism and Discrimination are found in all levels of the criminal justice system, at the policy, policing, and institutional levels. Systemic discrimination disproportionately targets and affects Indigenous peoples who come into contact with the criminal justice system and shapes those experiences. More broadly, systemic racism and discrimination has resulted in the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples, with extreme disparities found across the prairie provinces where the over-representation in correctional institutions is highest. This research summary on Systemic Racism and Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System explores the complex ways the justice system targets Indigenous peoples upon initial points of contact, in policing, the courts, the correctional system, and upon release, resulting in the alarming statistics we see today. It is through this research that scholars are able to draw connections between the criminal justice system and the current situations that many incarcerated or formerly incarcerated persons experience day-to-day. 

Purpose of the document: What are "Systemic and Background Factors" and how are they relevant to the Gladue Principles? Systemic and background factors (also known as Gladue Factors) are the unique experiences, circumstances, and challenges that an Indigenous person, their family, community, or Nation has faced. They relate to the harmful effects of colonialism and discrimination, past and present. Systemic and Background factors must be considered in a Gladue analysis (e.g. the direct and intergenerational impacts of residential school and the Sixties Scoop, among others). These factors are broader circumstances known to contribute to the over-incarceration of Indigenous persons in particular, as well as those that figure prominently in the causation of crime more generally. The purpose of this Research Summary is to help provide social context and background information for judges, lawyers, and Gladue report writers to better unpack the complex ways systemic discrimination and settler colonialism can impact an Indigenous person’s life. As well, these summaries will provide evidence-based research that speak to alternatives to incarceration, restorative options, and ways to support an individual through healing, aftercare, and release planning. While these summaries cannot replace the need for case-specific information about Indigenous individuals or the contemporary dynamics within their families and Nations, they can be used to craft more effective submissions and reports that better tie those case-specific details to the broader social context surrounding Indigenous overincarceration.

Access a copy of the Racism and Systemic Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System Summary by downloading the PDF attached at the top of this entry