New data provides a rare glimpse at ‘substantial’ Black overrepresentation in Ontario’s jails

Of interest:

Nearly one out of every 15 young Black men in Ontario experienced jail time, compared to one out of about every 70 young white men, and incarcerated Black people were more likely to live in low-income neighbourhoods, a new study of hard to come by race-based inmate data shows.

Using a snapshot of every Ontario inmate released in 2010, self-reported race data, home address data and 2006 census demographics, researchers from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, McMaster University, St. Michael’s Hospital and ICES, a non-profit clinical research institute, have provided a rare glimpse at “substantial” Black overrepresentation in jails.

“The key thing here is really just the extent to which young Black men experience incarceration in Ontario,” said lead author Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. “It’s hugely troubling, especially in light of what we know about the consequences of criminalization, of incarceration for their futures and the futures of their families and their communities. We know what it does. Incarceration derails lives.”

The jail data, provided by the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General, held details of 45,956 men and 6,357 women who were released from provincial correctional facilities, which house accused awaiting bail or trial, and offenders sentenced to less than two years.

Overall, 12.8 per cent of men identified as Black and had an incarceration rate of 4,109 per 100,000; 58.3 per cent identified as white, for an incarceration rate of 771 per 100,000, and 28.9 per cent as “other,” for a rate of 1,507 per 100,000.

“Other” includes Indigenous, another group vastly overrepresented in jails and federal prisons but not the focus of this study.

For women, the rates were much smaller for all groups but, overall, Black women were incarcerated at a rate of 259 per 100,000, white women had a rate of 96 per 100,000 and the rate for “other” was 248 per 100,000.

Young men between the ages of 18 and 34 had the highest rates of incarceration in all groups, but young Black men had rates ranging around 7,000 per 100,000, compared to about 1,400 per 100,000 for younger white men.

Neighbourhood demographic data gleaned from the forward sortation area of postal codes showed Black men and women were more likely to come from low-income areas of the province. Black men spent more days incarcerated than white men and had higher rates of being transferred to a federal prison.

“This study demonstrates that incarceration is heavily concentrated among young Black men who come from economically marginalized neighbourhoods,” concluded Owusu-Bempah, an assistant sociology professor at U of T, and co-authors Maria Jung, an assistant criminology professor at Ryerson, Firdaous Sbai, a doctoral sociology student at U of T, Andrew S. Wilton, an ICES researcher, and Fiona Kouyoumdjian, an assistant professor in McMaster’s department of family medicine.

At the root of the higher rates are “historical and contemporary social circumstances of Black people in Canada,” note the researchers. These include 200-plus years of slavery and anti-Black racism, and disparities in many systems, including education, employment, child protection and justice.

Black people experience higher rates of child apprehensions and school suspensions and expulsions, and are more heavily policed, the authors said in highlighting disparities found in numerous studies, and also groundbreaking reporting done by the Star around Toronto police arrest and charging patterns and carding, when police stop, question and document citizens in non-criminal encounters.

Lower incomes for Black people have resulted in Black families living in areas that are “underserved by transit, libraries, schools and hospitals,” and those neighbourhoods tend to have higher levels of crime and crime victims, and concentrated law enforcement, the paper notes, citing academic work done by David Hulchanski on Toronto.

In the United States, the “American experience” with race and incarceration “shows us that concentrated incarceration has negative consequences at the individual, family and community levels, including social problems relating to poverty, mental health, education, employment and civic involvement,” the researchers wrote.

That ends up distorting “social norms, leads to the breakdown of informal social control, and undermines the building blocks of social order which are essential for community safety,” the paper concludes.

The often claimed but false trope that Canada is better on race and racism than the United States is also examined at the outset of the paper, which is published in the journal Race and Justice.

While not directly comparable, the authors later note that 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed Black men were jailed in state and federal institutions each day at a rate of 2,417 per 100,000. In the Ontario study, the annual incarceration rate in 2010 for Black men was 4,109 per 100,000.

That, the authors wrote, helps to “contextualize the extent of Black over-incarceration in Ontario.”

Owusu-Bempah, in an interview, said that “when we think about mass incarceration and we think about this kind of concentrated incarceration as an American phenomenon, I think we can see very clearly here that the levels of overrepresentation that we see in the United States is here in Canada.”

The age of the Ontario data — now over a decade old — speaks to how rare it is to come across race-based Canadian data, the researchers noted in an emailed response to Star questions.

“While these data are from 10 years ago, our ongoing involvement in the criminal justice system indicates that the overrepresentation of Black people persists today,” said the research team. “We think that monitoring and publicly reporting on the overrepresentation of Black people on an ongoing basis is important.”

In order to examine Ontario jail demographics, the researchers used gender and birthdates to link the provincial jail data to health administrative data held by ICES that was used in a 2018 study that looked at use of health care during incarceration and following release from jail. That study found the access rates of all types of health care were significantly higher for incarcerated people.

There is also a huge financial cost involved in jailing people. The Star has twice used inmate postal code data, length of incarceration data and daily cost of housing an inmate to show that in some Toronto city blocks, tens of millions of dollars are being spent to jail their citizens.

Preventing and reducing incarceration could free up money that could be reinvested in those neighbourhoods.

The authors of this report are part of a growing chorus of researchers, academics and advocates calling for more racially disaggregated justice data in Canada, which lags behind the U.S. and U.K.

More data around Canadian incarceration populations in provincial and territorial jails that identifies areas and groups experiencing high levels of incarceration, the paper concludes, “will help inform targeted initiatives to prevent criminal justice involvement” and “mitigate” the impacts on people and communities.

Source: New data provides a rare glimpse at ‘substantial’ Black overrepresentation in Ontario’s jails

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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