Punishment isn’t the principle purpose of a justice system

We need to reorient our justice system away from punishment and towards restoration, accountability, and repair.

In July, when the Correctional Services of Canada announced notorious murderer and sex offender Paul Bernardo would be transferred from a maximum to a medium-security prison, public and political outcry was explosive.

Affording such a heinous criminal leniency disturbed many—Ontario Premier Doug Ford went as far as to say Bernardo should “rot in hell.”

Medium- and maximum-security prisons employ the same security measures. In reality, Bernardo’s transfer doesn’t change the degree of risk he poses to the public. The protests against Bernardo’s transfer are really debating something more: whether the purpose of our justice system is to keep communities safe, or to punish criminals.

Many politicians and members of the public seem to favour the latter perspective. While it’s natural to want Bernardo to suffer for his wrongdoings, this reasoning risks reducing our understanding of justice to nothing more than retribution.

Inflicting the maximum punishment on one prisoner doesn’t keep Canadians safer, nor does it prevent the next Bernardo from emerging.

On the other hand, moving Bernardo to a medium-security prison means he’ll have to undergo correctional programming and sex offender treatment, while interacting with other prisoners. There, he’ll be expected to take responsibility for his actions more meaningfully—a fate that’s not necessarily kinder than his previous life under maximum security, where he faced no such accountability.

Our justice system has an obligation to treat prisoners humanely and encourage rehabilitation, no matter how irredeemable we think they are.

In many cases, punishment isn’t what’s needed to hold criminals accountable, nor does it deter bad behaviour. “Tough on crime” policies have accomplished little but aggravate overincarceration, fracture communities, and set vulnerable people up for failure. They drain resources from education, healthcare, early intervention programs, and poverty alleviation efforts  targeting the root causes of crime.

Meanwhile, restorative, diversionary, and rehabilitative justice processes remain underutilized.

Seeking to apply the most punitive measures possible against lawbreakers often doesn’t bring a sense of justice or closure to victims, repair harm on an individual level, or address the systemic causes of crime. Applying punitive measures discourages offenders from understanding the consequences of their actions and changing their behaviour.

The evolution of Canada’s substance use laws offers a more promising alternative. Our government once sought to prosecute drug offenders harshly, but has since gained a fuller understanding of how criminalizing drug use further harms people who use drugs while actively preventing their recovery and failing to protect public health or safety. Our laws have changed to incorporate evidence-based harm reduction principles accordingly.

Though it might feel good to make perpetrators pay, we must first examine whether those decisions really improve the wellbeing of survivors, acknowledge the humanity of criminals, and keep our communities safe.

Anne is a third-year Health Sciences student and one of The Journal’s BIPOC Advisory Board Members.


crime, Justice system, Prison, rehabilitation, restoration

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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