Unpopular Opinion: You should care about 'criminals'


The term “criminal” is stigmatizing. it conjures up images of Spiderman stringing bank robbers by their feet until the police arrive—okay, maybe that’s just me—but typical views on anyone who’s been arrested, or as organizations like the John Howard Society refer to them: justice-involved, are that these individuals are the lowest of the low because they’re the bad guys who threaten our family’s safety and well-being.

The thing is, the general public’s views on those who have had dealings with the law are detrimental and harmful for everyone. In fact, I won’t even use the stigmatized word “criminal”. Even though it’ll take longer to type, I’ll go with “justice-involved”. The sacrifices I make…

There’s the obvious bleeding heart humanitarian angle where, unless you’re a complete sociopath, you can at the very least sympathize with those who were once innocent babies, born with a blank slate, and led down a particular path for various reasons. Many were failed by their parents, doctors, peers, schools, overall communities, and politicians. You also can’t overlook the fact that most of us have broken the law at some point in our lives and were never caught, but by sheer luck, many relish their high-horse position. Consider that in 2018, just 21 per cent of the Criminal Code violations in Canada were for violent crimes. 

But even if your heart isn’t quite bloody enough to sympathize with some monster who was convicted of Unauthorized Recording of a Movie (hang ‘em!), the self-interest angle is even more reason to start caring about the justice-involved. Holding those individuals back from working, receiving healthcare, having a home, enrolling in education services, and receiving humane care in prison actually puts the wellbeing of you and your family even more at risk and it costs you more money.

That’s right, your stigmatizing is actually costing you tax dollars in the form of jails and prisons, and emergency and services.

When it comes to incarceration, what’s the goal? You can say punishment—and that’s true to a degree—but it must always mostly be about rehabilitation. Nelson Mandela said it best: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones."

The reality is that for the most part, you can’t keep someone in jail for the rest of their lives. If you know they’re getting out, don’t you want to considerably dimish the possibility of them reoffending?

Access to mental house services and housing are huge components to eliminating the vicious cycle. Unfortunately, and not coincidentally, those are also the most touchy when it comes to public support.

You have to pay for a therapist and your medication, why shouldn’t they? You can barely afford rent, why should you pay for someone else to live—let alone someone who’s been to jail?! 

Well, if you have to eat a little more spaghetti and take fewer vacations to be able to afford a therapist, medication, and rent, their situation is likely more pressing than yours. Do you complain when someone with a missing limb sees a doctor before you, who’s battling a cold? Would you get angry that firefighters are paying more attention to your neighbour whose house is ablaze?

For many individuals who are justice-involved, their house is on fire. In fact, it’s been burned down and they’ve lost a limb in the process.

The John Howard Society (HJS) of Ontario provides research and direct services in an effort to make the criminal justice system more effective, just, and humane. In its 2019 reportChallenges and Opportunities in Stabilizing Housing and Mental Health Across the Justice Sector, the HJS highlighted the “despair and powerlessness of a person who has nowhere to go” after having been “released after an arrest, at court on bail, or from a correctional facility”.

Referrals to emergency supports such as shelters and hospitals are commonly the temporary or ‘band-aid’ solutions service providers and legal practitioners can offer,” according to the John Howard Society of Ontario. “The lack of coordination between different levels of service allows people to fall between the cracks, causing, perpetuating, or exacerbating homelessness”. 

Systemic, long-term solutions are needed both in the justice and supportive housing sectors. The prioritizing of affordable and supportive housing by the Canadian and Ontario governments provides an opportunity for action. The Correctional Services and Reintegration Act creates an important opportunity to build on. The time is right for the Government of Ontario and relevant ministries to take concrete, targeted steps to ensure that justice-involved people with mental health and addictions problems can get and keep affordable, stable, decent-quality housing.”

Regardless of your values—whether they’re based on empathy or self-interest—you should care about those who you often refer to as “criminals” because it’s in everyone’s best interest.

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