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Justice in Aboriginal Communities: Sentencing Alternatives

Iram Khan

using his background in law and his research in several northern Native communities, Ross Green has written a refreshing book that looks at the evolution of the Canadian criminal justice system with respect to Native communities' concepts of justice.

Justice in Aboriginal Communities book cover According to Statistics Canada, in 1993-94 71 percent and 47 percent of people at the provincial correctional centres in Saskatchewan and Manitoba respectively were Native even though they only represented 6-7 percent of the populations. This over-representation has caused many members of the justice system and the Native communities themselves to seek alternative methods of sentencing and mediation. The present Canadian justice system obviously is not helping the Native people of this country. In this book, Green explores four models of methods that combine traditional methods with "western" ones which include: the sentencing circle, the elders' or community sentencing panel, the sentence advisory committee, and the community mediation committee. As well, several essential case studies and interviews that analyse the successes and failures of each model are weaved into the book.

When I first approached this book I felt that, as many other Canadians feel now, why should the Natives get special treatment, and shouldn't these types of alternatives also be beneficial for the rest of Canada? However, as I read along, Green provides information which supports that these models would work best in Native communities, because they are usually remote and tightly knit. It isn't a Native/Non-Native issue, rather it is a rural/urban issue. These models are based on re-integration into the community, healing, and prevention and for these steps to successfully occur you need a tightly knit community who will be accountable for the offenders. When sentenced basically by their neighbours, offenders have the additional pressures put on them to admit to their crimes and agree to change their behaviors. Because judges fly in from "southern" cities to proceed over cases every month, when they leave their sentences and the authority behind them also leaves. Additionally, who would know the crime and the events leading up to it better than the community members?

Green admits that community involvement in sentencing is a fairly new trend that has brought up a few problems such as political pressures, funding, lack of support services. However, in general this type of sentencing seems to be working. Most importantly, for success, these communities need money to hire support services like psychologists and parole officers so more options can be given to them for sentencing. Additionally, the reins of justice have to be slowly handed over to these communities. Severe cases such as murder and rape, cannot yet be completely controlled by the communities. They need to practice re-integrating thieves and vandals before these kind of criminals, who usually have serious problems that need the help of specialists, which are not available in these communities.

Justice in Aboriginal Communities: Sentencing Alternatives is a good introduction to alternative sentencing models and the Native "over-representation" problem growing by the minute in our country's jails. At times, Green will lead readers into passages of legal jargon and the Criminal Code, but digging through them is well worth it. Canadian support and knowledge of this situation and the solutions towards it is necessary. As Chief Judge Lilles of the Yukon Territorial Court summarizes it:

Jail has shown not to be effective for First Nation people. Every family in Kawnlin Dun [the Yukon] has members who have gone to jail. It carries no stigma and therefore it is not a deterrent. Nor is it a 'safe place' which encourages disclosure, openness, or healing. The power or authority structures witchin the jail operate against 'openness'. An elder noted: 'Jail doesn't help anyone. A lot of our people could have been healed a long time ago if it weren't for jail. Jail hurts them more and then they come out really bitter. In jail all they learn is hurt and bitter.' (18)

published by purich publishing
ISBN 1-895830-10-9

Iram Khan frequently writes for canadian content on education related issues.

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