The Netflix documentary 13th delves deep into issues of criminal justice and the mass incarceration of black people in the United States. Named after the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery with an exception of criminal punishment, the film traces a line through slavery and Jim Crow, through to the ‘War on Drugs’ and exploding population of black people in custody. The stories in it are at once enraging and heart-breaking. Canadian viewers may be tempted to think that things are better North of the border, and it’s true that the statistics here are not quite as staggering. But the reality is that we have a history of racism that is albeit slightly different, given that ours didn’t include slavery in the same way. Still, anti-Black racism is alive and well in Canada, not to mention the legacy of colonialization and residential schools. (For an interesting look at racism in Canada, you can see Desmond Cole’s documentary ‘The Skin We’re In.’). What is particularly troubling about the examples in 13th is that many of the laws and policies that are at the root of mass incarceration of black people in the States are neither obscure, nor specific to the U.S. Indeed, many of them are here in Canada, with the same effects.
Tough on Crime approach
13th masterfully shows how powerful a ‘Tough on Crime’ stance can be in gaining political capital. The examples of Ronald Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’, followed by Bill Clinton’s ‘Three Strikes’ rules were mirrored by the Harper government in the imposition of a number of bills that ramped up punishments for certain offences, imposing mandatory minimum sentences and restricting parole eligibility for others. While these bills lack an evidentiary foundation in reducing crime, they were nevertheless pushed through and have served to criminalize and incarcerate more racialized people here as well.
(Not) Getting Bail
One of the many devastating stories in the movie is that of Kalief Browder, a young man who was arrested in New York City for a robbery and spent the next 3 years at Rikers Island. His case was eventually withdrawn, but not before he had spent nearly two years in solitary confinement and attempted suicide multiple times. The story evokes some of the struggles facing individuals in Canadian jails, particularly some of the stories that have come out of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. In Kalief’s case, his inability to be released on bail and the horrific conditions of his detention sent him into a spiral of mental health issues. We have seen a number of suicides recently in our jails, despite efforts on the provincial government’s part to ease overcrowding and issues surrounding bail.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Contributing to the overcrowding in jails are mandatory minimum sentences. These sentences, which remove a judge’s discretion to take into account particular circumstances of an offender, were shown in the movie to compel accused persons to take a deal for a lesser offence in order to avoid higher penalties. Here in Canada, we have a host of mandatory minimums in our Criminal Code, many of which have been increased over the last 15 years. The current Liberal government has promised to revisit some of the mandatory minimum sentences, acknowledging that they contribute to court delays and often compel individuals to try to go to trial, but we have yet to see any removal of these provisions. Instead, many courts have struck down mandatory minimum sentences, finding that they are disproportionate and do not comply with the Charter.
The Canadian Experience
There are so many other parallels that can be drawn from the Canadian experience, particularly within the context of policing and deaths of black people at the hands of police. The film should not make Canadians feel any better about our own situation, but should instead inspire vigilance that we don’t become even worse. It provides heartbreaking examples of how policies which serve to promote politicians can wreak havoc on marginalized communities. As 13th shows, addressing these criminal justice policies is integral in the fight for racial justice.