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Forum – Alternatives to Incarceration

The Humanist Association of Toronto

Every Saturday we meet to discuss a topic decided upon the previous week. These are topics of humanist interest, from a humanist perspective. Meet our diverse group, trade perspectives in a free and open forum and learn from others as they learn from you!

This week’s topic is “Alternatives to Incarceration”. The following is the topic description from one of our members:

Discussions about police brutality and systemic racism in the United States and elsewhere must inevitably address issues related to the justice system, including the prison system.

As a result of “tough and crime” and “war on drugs” initiatives over the past 50 years, the United States has become a country of mass incarceration, with over 2.2 million people incarcerated at any given time. These policies have disproportionately affected poor and marginalized communities including African Americans and have helped to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. In the United States, prisoners are disenfranchised and in some states, those convicted of felonies are permanently disenfranchised. In Canada, we do not have nearly the rate of incarceration, and prisoners do not lose the right to vote. But there remain disproportionate impacts on marginalized groups. The prison system is also an enormous drain on the public purse.

What are the purposes of imprisonment and does it accomplish these purposes?

Some of the stated purposes are retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Which are the most important? Does imprisonment fulfil any of these stated purposes? Are lengthy sentences appropriate or required to accomplish these purposes? How do we deal with a public that demands retribution?

Are there ways to reform the justice system to do a better job of accomplishing these purposes?

To what extent is there racial discrimination in the justice system? Is there differing treatment on whether certain groups are charged criminally? Do privileged groups get lighter sentences? Is the system of plea bargaining fair? How do we tackle these disparities?

What are some of the alternatives to prison and do they work? Some alternatives include fines, restitution, community service, probation, house arrest, inpatient drug/alcohol rehabilitation, inpatient psychiatric treatment and work release. Are there other or better alternatives?

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