Call for change in a ‘backward’ criminal justice system

By Lincoln DePradine

From left: Natacha P. Pennycooke and Dr Natasha Williams

Canada is operating a “backward’’ criminal justice system with little emphasis on restoration of inmates, many of them incarcerated as youngsters and needing help with issues such as anger and depression, according to psychologist Dr Natasha Williams.

“It’s such a backward system,’’ said Williams, a clinical rehabilitation and counselling psychologist, who also is president of the Association of Black Psychologists.

“Why don’t you pour money into restoration instead of this maintenance and this turnstile-type of fashion, where inmates will just keep coming back? Because, if we actually rehabilitate them, they’re not coming back,’’ Williams said during a webinar on “Mental Health & The Trauma of the Criminal Justice System!’’.

The discussion was part of a series being hosted by “Keep6ix’’, an organization with a mission of providing one-on-one mentoring, career counseling and employment skills training for young people; as well furnishing “justice system-involved youth’’ with “holistic and integrated capacity-building programs’’.

The discussion, involving a panel of four, moderated by registered psychotherapist Natacha P. Pennycooke, referenced the incarceration rate for Indigenous people and Black Canadians; a rate disproportionate to their numbers in the Canadian population.

“There needs to be a change and we’re all waiting for this change to come,’’ Pennycooke said.

Panelists Warren Abbey and Damien Blackman related their experiences of difficult childhoods, being sent to prison and then turning their lives around on release from jail.

They reported that a prisoner seeking assistance for mental health and traumatic life experiences may have to wait up to two years to receive help, with the needed aid given only if the patient displays “suicidal’’ behaviour.

The only thing that’s readily available is anti-depressant, Abbey said.

Williams emphasized that the help needed by Black inmates must be “adequate’’ in quality.

“Reaching out for help is one thing; but, are you then even receiving the adequate help that you need once you get it? You have now people who are ill-equipped, once they are released, because they haven’t received the treatment or whatever services that they needed to increase their likelihood of success, once they leave,’’ Williams said.

“The longer that the symptoms stay and they are not treated, it’s the longer that the poison festers, if you want to use an analogy. The longer that they remain untreated, the more substantial the symptoms become and remain and become entrenched. Those surface symptoms have roots.’’

Rather than the system investing money into medication as a treatment, officials ought to be spending on preventive and restorative measures, Williams argued.

Her argument was supported by therapist Maria Watkins, a fellow panelist, who said: “That is what we need – restorative justice, not punitive justice’’.

Pennycooke, a mental health advisor with “Keep6ix’’, described the situation with the criminal justice system as “problematic’’.

“The criminal justice system is actually exacerbating what mental health issues are already there in the first place,’’ she said. “It, being a backward system, means that we are being impacted at greater and greater rates. We’re all impacted.’’