Benjamin Perrin, former counsel in Stephen Harper’s office, writes a provocative book, almost calculatingly so. “I’m a white male law professor and a settler,” writes Perrin. At one point he appears to liken the jailing of Indigenous prisoners to the crucifixion of Jesus. “I see Jesus as someone who was wrongfully convicted and executed by an occupying power,” he says.
“I unreservedly apologize for my role in perpetuating the criminal justice system and supporting ‘tough on crime’ laws and policies earlier in my career, especially in 2012-2013 when I was on leave from my job as a law professor to advise Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” writes Perrin. “He is responsible for his decisions. But I am responsible for the advice that I gave and didn’t give.”
Perrin’s Indictment: The Criminal Justice System On Trial advocates “transformative justice.” The remedies he proposes have been articulated by Olivia Chow and the John Howard Society.
Indictment skewers Perrin’s former Reform and Conservative Party friends. “Conservative politicians in Canada and Republican politicians in the United States have made ‘stupid on crime’ policies their stock in trade for decades,” he writes. “In political lingo it is ‘red meat’ for voters, a sure bet to rile people up to vote, sign up for a membership, donate and volunteer. This crass, cynical game is destroying lives and it has to stop.”
At first glance Perrin’s book has the look of a spicy, 408-page mea culpa of the I Was A Teenage Communist school of non-fiction, a full-throated takedown of Party insiders by a former insider. Then it gets better.
Perrin correctly notes Canadian courts are “an adversarial system run amok.” Everyone knows the figures. Penitentiaries are filled with poor, jobless, fentanyl-addicted criminals. Few wealthy, connected, cocktail-drinking criminals ever see a cellblock.
The author even quotes a criminal defence lawyer who explains a defendant charged with drug possession has a good chance at acquittal for, say, $25,000. “For a day-long trial there would have to be Charter issues to exclude the evidence,” the barrister is quoted. “Without that you will be found guilty. I would charge something to someone who can pay. I’d charge $20,000 to $25,000.”
But it’s not the Reform Party or Stephen Harper or carnivore constituents who run the system. It’s Perrin’s own profession: lawyer prosecutors, lawyer judges, lawyer Correctional Service managers and Parole Board appointees. “Unlike physicians, criminal justice professionals have no equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath that binds them to ‘do no harm or injustice,’” he writes.
Yet the “system,” meaning lawyers, “intentionally or knowingly caused harm,” “recklessly caused harm” and “negligently caused harm.” This takes character on Perrin’s part, as a practitioner “educated and indoctrinated into the Canadian legal system at some of the country’s top law schools.” He is today a professor of law at the University of British Columbia.
Perrin interviews convicted murders, rapists, drug traffickers and robbers. “I learned vastly more from them than all the cocktail receptions, fireside talks and conference panels combined,” he writes.
He also interviews crime victims. “Hearing their stories brought me to tears more than once, affected my sleep, made me feel a sense of hopelessness and caused me to doubt things could ever change,” he writes.
Indictment is articulate and passionate and lays out what Perrin believes is a path to reform. But that’s up to the lawyers. They got us in this. They can get us out.
By Holly Doan
Indictment: The Criminal Justice System On Trial, by Benjamin Perrin; University of Toronto Press; 408 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-33731; $32.95