Black history, both personal and community, is now a factor in sentencing in Nova Scotia

Jason Middleton says the inclusion of black history in his sentencing — both personal tragedy and community struggle — opened a new path to his troubled life.

A cultural assessment completed in October 2016 led to house arrest and probation rather than a lengthy jail term after he was found guilty of a series of scuffles with police during arrests for violation probation and an assault in the dungeon.

“I knew from that moment that people weren’t just looking through me, but rather trying to see through me. It humanized me,” Middleton said in a recent interview since. his home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The 49-year-old African Nova Scotian – who also has Indigenous ancestry – grew up in an environment of abuse and poverty and says he was often sentenced to prison by the predominantly white legal system in the city. province.

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However, in the summer of 2016, a document prepared for the provincial court known as the Race and Culture Impact Assessment took a different approach – outlining how the historical neglect of black communities has led to disproportionate levels of imprisonment and telling the defendant’s story of his suffering as a child.

The assessments were initiated by Halifax social worker Robert Wright in a landmark 2014 case. The provincial Department of Justice says that since 2018, 147 such reports have been completed.

Middleton’s report was the first paid for by the court system.

Wright says he and other evaluators normally spend hours talking with the defendant and then place their stories in the larger context of the black experience. The reports, 20 pages long, sometimes describe a mixture of multigenerational poverty and lack of access to treatment for childhood trauma.

Department of Justice figures indicate that about 11% of inmates serving provincial sentences last year were African Nova Scotians, nearly five times the proportion of blacks in the population.

Wright, 55, said in a recent interview that there was a shortage of evaluators and some defendants were choosing to skip reports because they were taking too long. However, he notes that Nova Scotia judges are proposing “innovative sentences” that avoid jail time in a growing number of cases, even some involving gun and drug trafficking.

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For example, a Court of Appeal decision last year upheld Rakeem Anderson’s suspended sentence for possession of a loaded .22 caliber weapon. He concluded that ignoring cultural connections “may constitute an error of law” for a sentencing judge.

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Darren Tynes, a 50-year-old Halifax man charged with theft, said in a recent interview that he told Wright about experiences of racism that damaged his trust in white people. He said the resulting report improved the judge’s understanding of his story and he was now optimistic he would get a suspended sentence.

Tynes has vivid memories of a white classmate’s father kicking him out of his friend’s house and hurling racial slurs at him. He also recounted a violent attack on him by a group of white men when he was just 10 years old as he was walking home in his downtown Halifax neighborhood.

Poverty can pave the way for bad decisions, Tynes said. “I wanted nice things but never got any. There were times when I didn’t go to school because my sneakers had holes in them and the other kids made fun of me,” he said. -he declares.

Darren Tynes stands for a photo on Gottingen Street in Halifax on Monday Feb. 1, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kelly Clark.

Wright’s assessments sometimes go back generations, and that of Middleton’s case noted how historic black communities in southwestern Nova Scotia faced segregation and subsistence economies, as well as access mediocre in education.

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Middleton was born to a 14-year-old single mother and raised under the strict discipline of his grandmother, who sometimes had to leave home for mental health treatment, the report said. It also describes Middleton’s accounts of mistreatment in his home and physical and sexual abuse at the Nova Scotia School for Boys in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, as well as the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in Halifax.

Wright then draws connections to the role race plays in the recovery from childhood trauma.

“People of African descent…are less likely to seek help, are less likely to find appropriate help when they seek it, and are less likely to receive the help they seek and find” , he wrote in Middleton’s report, citing a provincial advisory. the committee’s findings in 2012 that confirmed gaps in service to black citizens.

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How far other court systems in Canada will go to follow the Nova Scotia system remains unclear.

The Ontario Court of Appeal noted in an October 8 decision that although cultural connections may “sometimes be an important consideration in sentencing, the trial judge’s task is not primarily to hold the criminal justice system accountable for systemic failures”. The decision on a Crown appeal in the case of Kevin Morris of Toronto, a 22-year-old man convicted of four counts including possession of a loaded weapon, saw his one-year sentence doubled to two years less a day.

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David Curry, the attorney who represented Middleton, said white justices are trying to rule on a historical issue about which they often have very little personal knowledge. “They struggle to reconcile that with their understanding of the law,” he said. Over time, however, he believes the Nova Scotia system will influence court decisions across the country.

Meanwhile, Middleton gave presentations on his case to law students at Dalhousie University and said he was working to create a support group that would include black and Indigenous men. He says the 2016 report helped him reorient his life towards these projects.

“It connected the dots,” he said. “It let me know not just what I was doing, but why I was doing what I was doing.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 3, 2022.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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