High Indigenous prison rate ‘unacceptable’: Supreme Court chief justice

High Indigenous prison rate ‘unacceptable’: Supreme Court chief justice

OTTAWA — The over-representation of Indigenous people in prison is “unacceptable” and reveals a serious problem, says Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner.

“That’s a terrible situation, I must say,” Wagner told a rare news conference Friday. “I mean, the rate is too high.”

In 2015-16, Indigenous people represented almost one-quarter of the total federal offender population.

In addition, a lower percentage of Indigenous offenders have benefited from gradual release from custody than non-Indigenous ones.

The Liberal government has singled out the difficult relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the justice system as a priority for ministers, and various parliamentary committees have been busy studying the challenges and potential solutions.

Wagner said that while he’ll leave the politics to others, the high court is making its voice heard on issues of Indigenous justice.

He pointed to a decision this month in which the court said the federal prison service had failed to ensure its psychological assessment tools were fair to Indigenous inmates.

The Supreme Court has a role to play in the national reconciliation with First Nations, Wagner added.

“It’s going to be a long process. It has to be done. It has to be done the right way. And it involves many stakeholders,” he said.

“And we are committed to do it, within our own jurisdiction.”

The chief justice spoke to the media after being recently reminded that his predecessor, Beverley McLachlin, gave news conferences at the beginning and end of her tenure as top judge.

Wagner said he is trying to make the Supreme Court more open and accessible to Canadians. In recent years the court has embraced social media and it has begun issuing plain-language summaries of its decisions.

The Supreme Court’s nine justices plan to visit Winnipeg next year for meetings and community events, and Wagner mused that he would love to see the court hold hearings outside of Ottawa “from time to time.”

“I think it would be a wonderful thing for the court and the public. How we bring the court closer to Canadians is something I think about a lot,” he said.

“Canadians should know that the courts are there for them when they need them. The public also has a right to know how our courts work.”

Ignorance breeds many biases, he said, and the more people who know about the judicial system “the more they will keep faith in the system, and that’s very important.”

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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