Notes for Abolition: Some Facts on Criminal Injustice Systems

Jeff Shantz

Criminal justice systems in settler colonial states like Canada are not institutions of justice as they claim. They are institutions of class rule, domination and control. And they operate on a basis of racialization and social stratification within a context of social class inequality. As an example, the prisoner population in Canada had increased by 7.1 percent over the five-year period up to 2013, with much of this increase coming from marginalized groups such as Aboriginal people and black people (Correctional Investigator Canada, 2013).

We can see this too if we look at incarceration rates for women which increased by 60 percent over the ten-year period between 2003 and 2013, with marginalized Indigenous and black females again being disproportionately represented in the Canadian prison population. The majority of black women are incarcerated for drug offences, including so-called trafficking, which many of them pursued, according to interviews with these prisoners, in an effort to rise above poverty (Correctional Investigator Canada, 2013). Indigenous women are Canada’s fastest growing prison population. The rate has risen by over 100 percent between 2001 and 2016.

Abolitionists emphasize that penal systems (police through prisons) do not dd what they claim they do. They are not institutions of public safety, they do not protect us. We oppose them as institutions of brutality, inequality, and injustice. At the same time we need to point out that the penal system serves a function other than what its propagandists suggest it does.

We can see the falsity of penal system claims by looking at a few essential facts.


Propagandists for penal systems (police, politicians, some criminologists) argue that these systems are about keeping us safe from physical violence. But most crimes in Canada do not involve physical violence or harm. We can look at crime stats over several years:

Crimes Against the Person: 91,033, 23.49% (2013); 87,887,  23.19% (2014); 76,888 23.44% (2015)

But 14% is Common Assault and Uttering Threats. These may not involve any physical harm to the person.

ONLY 0.7% for Homicide and related. And of these many are crimes of passion or singular events that will not be done again by the person responsible. Locking them up is not about keeping us safe.

Most crime involves property offenses, victimless crimes, consumption offenses, etc. These might involve no physical harm and may, in fact, have no victims at all.

Crimes Against Property: 88,664, 22.87% (2013); 85,301, 22.50% (2014); 76,356, 23.28% (2015)

Many criminalized activities involve administration of justice offenses. These are matters of systems maintenance, not ham to individuals or society.

Administration of Justice: 85,554, 22.07% (2013); 84,213, 22.22% (2014); 74,811, 22.81 (2015)

Another 13% of criminalized activity in Canada is made up of drug offenses. And a further 13% involves traffic offenses.

Administration of Justice Offenses

Administration of justice cases involve matters related to case proceedings (such as failure to appear in court, failure to comply with a court order, breach of probation, and unlawfully at large. They) account for more than one fifth of cases completed in adult criminal courts.

In addition to administration of justice cases, theft and impaired driving are the most frequent case in adult courts in Canada.


Most people incarcerated in Canada have not been convicted or sentenced for any offense. In Canada, remand exceeds the sentenced population. In 2015-16, adults in remand made up 60 percent of the population in custody. That year there were 14899 people in remand in Canada compared with 10091 in sentenced custody. The average number of adults in remand in 2015-16 was 35 percent higher than in 2005-06 (Reitano, 2016).

The total number of adults in remand in Canada (those awaiting trial or sentencing) has exceeded the provincial/territorial adult sentenced custody population since 2004/2005.

On a so-called typical day in 2016/2017, adults in remand outnumbered those in sentenced custody by a ratio of 1.5 to 1 in the provinces and territories. The ratio of adults in remand to those in sentenced custody has been increasing since 2013/2014, when it was 1.2 to 1.

In 2016/2017, 8 of 13 jurisdictions had a higher proportion of remanded offenders than those in sentenced custody: Alberta (72%), Ontario (70%), Manitoba (68%), British Columbia (65%), Nova Scotia (60%), Northwest Territories (57%), Yukon (56%) and Nunavut (53%).

The Financial Costs

So, the Canadian state has built a vast infrastructure of containment and control to punish people for acts that involve no physical harm to persons, have no victims, involve personal consumption choices, or restrain people who have not been convicted of anything. Hardly structures of public safety or security.

Yet to contain and control people on this basis, incredible social wealth, resources, and services are diverted.

In 2014-15, expenditures on federal corrections in Canada totaled approximately $2.63 billion. Since 2005-06, expenditures on federal corrections have increased 55.0%, from $1.63 billion to $2.63 billion. This represents an increase of 51.5% in constant dollars.

Provincial/territorial expenditures totaled an additional cost of about $2.21 billion in 2014-15. This represents an increase of 52.7% since 2005-06. In constant dollars, this is an increase of 49.3%.

Penal Institutions as Social Theft

These are extreme expenditures of social resources that represent a diversion of social funding and services away from social provisions for health care, education, housing, social assistance, mental health care, and other positive social services. Social resources used to punish people in the way that the Canadian state deploys represent a social theft away from necessary social services that can actually make society and our communities healthier, safer, and more secure. Without inflicting the brutality, cruelty, and coercion that penal institutions are all about.

Prisons Replace Health Care: Foucault at the General Hospital Today

Prisons Replace Health Care: Foucault at the General Hospital Today

Jeff Shantz

Throughout capitalist modernity prisons have always been spaces of class rule and social control. Social theorist Michel Foucault noted in his influential book Madness and Civilization the role of the General Hospital in Paris of containing and medicalizing poor people who would not or could not work for capital. It was largely made up by the criminalization of poor people (vagrants)—the unemployed, vagabonds, petty thieves, beggars, “the insane.”

This served the interests of the emerging class of merchants, landlords, and business people—capital—by removing so-called nuisances and also by providing a vast source of cheap labor. Over time a new category, “the insane” was developed to distinguish those who could not work from those who would not. Segregation emerged to keep “the insane” away from the reserve army of labor who they supposedly disrupted. These were economic reasons, not matters of public safety.

Prisons are still about punishing working class people (for not working for capital or for more openly resisting exploitation) and imposing the rules of the formal market economy. As neoliberalism has cut social services that working class people actually need, like health care, child care, social housing, education, social assistance, etc. the prison-industrial complex (policing through to prisons) have expanded and received more public money.

To keep budgets up, police have expanded into areas they have no place in, like “harm reduction,” and prisons have become substitutes for health care facilities. This is reflected in the disproportionate numbers of prisoners with mental health and drug use issues.

Still Disciplining and Punishing Mental Health and Drug Use Issues

Some basic statistics are telling (even if an undercount). Mental illness rates are about 4 to 7 times more common in prison than in the broader community. According to a report by the John Howard Society, 11 percent of federal offenders in Canada had a mental health diagnosis; 21.3 percent had prescribed psychiatric medication; 14.5 percent of male offenders had a past psychiatric hospitalization (all 2009 numbers).

Additionally, between 24-38 percent of a sample of 1,370 male offenders admitted over a 16 month period required further assessment.

We can see a similar situation when we look at the imprisonment of people with substance use issues. According to Correctional Services Canada, almost 70 per cent of prisoners admitted are assessed as having a substance abuse problem. A 2007 survey of prisoners reported that 17 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women admitted to using intravenous drugs while in federal prisons.

Class and Criminalization

Drug use and mental health issues can be related to unemployment and poverty. Law and order and “tough on crime” policies reinforce the class punishment of poor people. The more that policing occurs in poor communities the more people with mental health and drug use issues will be incarcerated.

Policing is concentrated in poorer neighborhoods and arrest rates are higher in poorer communities. That is because policing is about surveillance, control, and regulation of the working classes. It is also because it costs the system less to target poor people (who often lack secure residences, who have fewer resources to mount a defense, and who are more likely to be convicted—to secure a system outcome).

In Canada in the twenty-first century, prisons maintain the function outlined by Foucault in his analysis of the General Hospital of Paris. Containing and controlling working class people on a basis of medicalization and psychology—related to their labor within the formal market economy.

Further Reading

Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Random House