Women in Criminal Justice is a wide-ranging book of essays by lawyers and judges who are also women. This simple thread, the gender of the writers, gives a glimpse into Canada’s vast and complex criminal justice system. It’s a fascinating foray and an essential perspective for those interested in how social inequity is inseparable from notions of criminality and justice.
Many of the pieces tread not totally unexpected ground—such as gender-based violence and motherhood. The Honourable Nancy Morrison tells, with consent, the appalling story of Vicki Waters. Waters was sexually abused by her aunt and uncle from childhood, including having an IUD inserted nonconsensually when she was “12 or 13 years old.” Morrison considers Waters, who successfully sued for civil damages, a “hero.”
Jill Presser, in her piece entitled “Mom’s Rea: Motherhood, Criminal Defence and Guilt” takes on the inadequacy complex common to working mothers, especially those with the demanding and unpredictable schedules of criminal defence lawyers. At heart she’s a lawyer, but she wants to feel that she is fulfilling the demands of motherhood. It’s hard when her child comes to recognize that her mother’s work is more important than being a present parent.
The collection really starts to thrum with essays such as Senator Kim Pate’s rendition of “The story of S”—an Indigenous woman with the unfortunate distinction of being the longest-imprisoned woman in Canada. Pate, the former executive director of the Elizabeth Fry society (which supports women in the criminal justice system), details how a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse, beginning in residential school, underpins S’s continued incarceration. “The image that emerges,” she writes, “is one of a criminal justice system that fails consistently to protect or treat with dignity or respect, marginalized, vulnerable and victimized Indigenous women… yet seems to spring vigorously into action to criminalize them.”
Pate compiles a biting list of injustices facing these women, which indicates, she says, the failure of the rule of law within prisons. These injustices include widespread physical assaults, unnecessary cavity searches performed in exchange for cigarettes, and reports of male guards leaving women naked and shackled for days in stripped-down cells. It’s galling reading, and Pate points out that grievance mechanisms, which could serve to hold prison institutions accountable, are ineffectual.
In a different essay, Calgary lawyer Kaysi Fagan contemplates the ethics of criminal justice from the rare case of a solo female drug dealer, Pearl Sanders, a 70-year-old who trafficked half a million dollars of BC marijuana. These cases reveal the “soul” of the whole system. How can you put a grandmother in prison? But given the magnitude of her crime, how can you not? Fagan’s essay becomes a criticism of tough-on-crime legislation and ex-PM Harper’s legacy of not allowing house arrest for drug charges—even for the elderly and sick.
The crisis of Legal Aid is the topic for Edmontonian Deborah Hatch, who represented Wendy Scott, an innocent woman found guilty of a bloody murder in Medicine Hat. Legal Aid provides representation to those unable to hire their own lawyers, but funding is so poor that many deserving cases are denied. Such an impoverished system, Hatch argues, sacrifices the liberty of the innocent. Thanks to her work (performed pro bono but ultimately compensated by the Crown), Scott was freed.
Lawyers in the criminal justice system have great stories to tell. This collection allows a glimpse into those tales, while also doing a formidable job of portraying contemporary legal issues.
—Jay Smith is an Edmonton writer and a law student.