COMMENTARY || How Canada's criminal justice system can fix its gender problem

Patriarchal system must incorporate more female experiences and perspectives, argues UAlberta sociologist.


The Canadian criminal justice system has a gender problem. In the last few weeks, the media has covered stories about sexual harassment in the RCMP, a judge acquitting a Halifax taxi driver of sexually assaulting an intoxicated passenger found partly naked and unconscious in the back of his cab, and the dismissal of a large number of sexual assault cases by several police departments across Canada.

This pattern is unacceptable in a country that prides itself on law, order and good government, especially the protection of democratic rights and freedoms for all citizens regardless of their gender, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. What’s going on and what can be done about it?

Some would suggest that these cases are anomalies and are the result of a few bad apples. As this argument goes, most judges, lawyers and police officers are going about their jobs in a lawful and professional manner and it’s just the actions of a few bad ones who spoil and tarnish the reputation of everyone else working in the criminal justice system.

However, such explanations are problematic for a couple of reasons. First, if it was just a case of a few bad apples occasionally misbehaving, then you would think that by now, the criminal justice system would have come up with a way of screening for them before they were hired, or would at least have a system or program for educating them about inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour. Given the persistence and regularity of these incidents, it is clear that little has been done successfully in this regard.

Second, by pointing the finger at individuals, it lessens the likelihood of examining whether problem is systemic and determining whether the reported incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. In other words, perhaps it’s not a problem of a few bad apples, but rather a case of a rotten orchard.

Systemic problems, such as institutional sexism, require significant, meaningful and enduring solutions. While official inquiries into the various components of the criminal justice system, and strategies such as improved screening processes, gender sensitivity training, and improving protection for whistleblowers are useful, they do not go far enough.

The institution of criminal justice, which remains predominantly patriarchal, must be transformed from within, incorporating female experiences and perspectives, to address its gender problem. What is required is a large-scale effort to attract more women—and visible minorities, for that matter—to careers within the criminal justice system and ensuring that they are encouraged to stay and provided with the opportunities to succeed and advance through the ranks.

Women account for about 20 per cent of all uniformed officers in Canada. This statistic is better than it used to be, but women are still a minority, especially in the top ranks, where they hold only 12 per cent of the jobs. While more women have steadily entered the criminal law profession, recent studies have found that retaining them is increasingly difficult due to a lack of respect from male colleagues and the logistical and financial challenges in taking maternity leave and balancing family and work responsibilities. Overall, women are under-represented among the over 1,000 federally appointed judges, and there is a distinct pattern of under-representation among the over 700 provincially appointed judges. More female judges, lawyers and police officers, as well as probation and correctional officers, will go a long way in dismantling many of the patriarchal biases that are at work in many of these instances.

For example, research shows that women are more likely to report sexual assault and domestic violence to female police officers. Since the 1970s, studies have also shown that female police officers are less authoritarian in their approach to policing, less reliant on physical force, and are more effective communicators. Generally, female officers are better at defusing potentially violent confrontations before those encounters turn deadly.

Canada is a modern, multicultural nation state that values diversity and the wide range of benefits it provides. People are more effectively, and even more easily, policed when they are mirrored by their police service.

A growing body of criminal justice research shows that increasing diversity within all components of the criminal justice system helps maintain law and order and ensures justice for all. But let’s be realistic. Just like rotten orchards exist in blighted fields, sexist institutions exist within sexist societies, and so broader societal change encompassing all our institutions must occur before we ever achieve complete gender equality.

Geraint Osborne is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Camrose Booster.