The justice system needs to radically alter how it deals with crime, argues law prof in his book
In 2018, Benjamin Perrin received an unsolicited letter that significantly changed how he researched criminal law.
It was a handwritten letter from an Indigenous man incarcerated in British Columbia.
“He didn’t ask for any help,” says Perrin. “He didn’t want anything from me. He was literally just sharing his experience and telling me what his life was like in the criminal justice system.”
That same year, the federal justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, launched a public consultation on justice reform, and Perrin, a professor at University of British Columbia’s faculty of law, was invited to participate. Justice Canada asked participants what a new justice system would look like, designed from scratch.
“So, on one hand, I’ve got this letter from this Indigenous inmate, which is just haunting me. And then I have this quite provocative once-in-a-generation question, which is, ‘How can we do things differently?’ And that was the kindling in the spark for my book Indictment.”
Perrin’s book is broken into two sections. The first hears from those with lived experience in the justice system, like the Indigenous letter writer. Perrin says these people act as figurative witnesses putting the justice system on trial, hence the Indictment title.
“We literally sent a poster by email across the country to every organization that was listed in the Justice Canada Victim Services Directory and services that they provide for people who have been charged and incarcerated.”
The second section hears from experts, like lawyers, judges, and other justice sector professionals. Perrin brings years of experience working with and interviewing many of these experts.
Before he began the book, he had worked with victims of crime, researched human trafficking, and worked on justice issues for Prime Minister Steven Harper as his top criminal-justice advisor.
Even further back, Perrin had worked in downtown courts as a law student helping clients who couldn’t afford a lawyer, and at a centre for abused women and children as a teenager.
Perhaps most significantly, Perrin had personal experience with the criminal justice system. His book opens by recounting the experience of his father-in-law, Greg, a Métis with a troubled childhood and run-ins with the law, and how he was transformed in a vision quest.
“I remember when he went on [it], and he came back a totally different person. The big thing that he went out there to overcome was a crack cocaine addiction,” Perrin recounts.
The common thread connecting all these stories, Perrin says, was trauma.
“The overwhelming majority, almost universally, of the people … were previously themselves victimized and continue to be victimized often when they are caught up in the justice system.”
For the book’s second part, Perrin’s interviewees included corrections officers, the head of an Indigenous peacekeeping force, people doing gang-exit work, public health experts, forensic psychiatrists, and police force specialists. Many of them, he anticipates, will be the “next generation of big thinkers on criminal justice issues in Canada.”
He asks readers to consider whether the system is amenable to reform or requires a “whole overhaul.” His answer to that question, Perrin says, was very different after speaking with people who experienced trauma. “The importance [of the stories] and why I tell stories in Indictment, and not just [include] statistics and studies, is it’s quite clear that we’re not doing criminal justice policy based on evidence in Canada right now.”
Perrin’s personal story drives much of his work. He became interested in politics because of his passion for policy, and he is disillusioned with the “tough-on-crime” agenda that many members of the Conservative Party have adopted.
“My own views about criminal justice policies and politics really began to unravel in the years after I left Ottawa,” he says. “The political piece that I think Indictment does is it very thoroughly debunked the tough-on-crime agenda… The reactive approach that we have to criminal justice policy reform in Canada does so much harm and is ultimately ineffective.”
Perrin quickly points out that this ineffective approach is not isolated to a single political party.
“You even see elements of it in the federal Liberal government in the recent bail measures – you see it with the provincial NDP government talking about involuntary treatments in British Columbia.”
Of the professionals in the justice system he interviewed, Perrin says many recognized the dysfunction but felt unwilling or unable to speak out. And many others meant well but didn’t recognize the effects of their actions.
“If I were a judge and read this book, I’d be mad,” he says. Although most judges think they are doing good and try to interpret the Criminal Code in a manner that is consistent with the Charter, Perrin says when you aggregate these decisions across a person’s lifetime, they are often doing substantial harm.
“Judges and lawyers, in particular, will be incredibly well served by a greater understanding of trauma and the role that it plays in every interaction they have in the criminal justice system.”
Perrin also openly discusses his Christian faith and how it drives his approach. “Being a person who’s following Jesus, the people he spent his time helping were the outcasts of society. [Jesus] talks about people who are imprisoned and sick and poor.”
With his Conservative political experience and Christian faith, Perrin can speak directly to those communities about how the tough-on-crime approach that is gaining popularity may not achieve their objectives.
“This debate has become so polarized, and I really hope that Indictment will spark a national conversation on new and better ways to address harm in our society… The justice system is transmitting a tremendous amount of trauma. And if we could just step back and look at ways that we can transform that trauma and harm, we will get better outcomes.”
Name: Benjamin Perrin
Current position: Professor, University of British Columbia, Peter A. Allard School of Law
2006–07: completed clerkship with the Supreme Court of Canada
2007: joined UBC law faculty
2012–13: served in the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada as a special advisor, legal affairs & policy
Writings on criminal law
Benjamin Perrin’s books include:
Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial (UTP, forthcoming October 2023)
Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis (Penguin Random House, 2020)
Victim Law: The Law of Victims of Crime in Canada (Thomson Reuters, 2017)
Criminal Law: Canadian Law, Indigenous Laws & Critical Perspectives (CanLII, 2023) – a free open-access textbook for law students