Policing Society’s Poor: Unjust, Ineffective, and Inefficient

by Alok Mukherjee

Recently, I was in a Provincial Offences court in Toronto’s Old City Hall. I saw a stream of Toronto’s poor, mostly new immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, and young black people who had grown up in Toronto. One elderly white woman could barely walk or talk. A handful were represented by a paralegal or student lawyer from a community legal clinic. Most were not represented. Some needed interpreters.

A team of Public prosecutors presented charges against them related to failure to pay fines under the Provincial Offences Act (POA). In each case, the prosecutor had pre-arranged the payment of a reduced amount either with the individual or a legal representative. The judge, a caring person, made sure the defendant understood the deal proposed.

One man owed $30,000 in unpaid fines from traffic offences, including driving without insurance. Trained as an engineer, he had come to Canada to escape his troubled homeland in Africa and found work in the trades. He could not afford car insurance, but he needed to travel from one work site to another. He was not a criminal nor a threat to public safety, but from ignorance of the law and inability to pay, he had let the fines accumulate. Though the outstanding penalties were reduced, he would still have to pay every month for several years to discharge the debt.

The state had spent significant resources to collect this money. The payments would not cover a fraction of that cost. And repeated fines had not stopped the man from re-offending.

In 2011, when I was president of the Ontario Association of Police Service Boards, we released a white paper, “Provincial Offences Act—Unpaid Fines: A $1 Billion Problem,” pointing out that uncollected POA fines represented $1 billion and climbing. More than a third were related to the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act, another third to the Highway Traffic Act. Approximately half were owed to the City of Toronto.

Uncollected fines began to grow after the POA was established in 1980, and increased exponentially after 1999–2002, when municipalities were made responsible for collecting them. In return for doing so, municipalities kept the bulk of the revenue.

The POA is broad and includes activities such as loitering, panhandling, and causing a public nuisance while intoxicated. These offences apply disproportionately to street people, often those with mental health challenges. Thousands of people are fined by police under the POA or the Safe Streets Act, passed in 1999.

In another court room in Old City Hall, a justice of the peace deals with tickets issued by Toronto police officers to street people for solicitation under Ontario’s Safe Streets Act. Many of these “panhandlers” are not present in court to offer their version of events. They are tried in absentia; the offence as stated in the ticket is the “evidence.”

This practice of imposing fines and of prosecuting the poor without their presence has drawn objections from social justice groups and law practitioners. The definition of “solicitation” in the Safe Streets Act is subject to the discretion of police officers. Yet fines do nothing to change the behaviour of those who are targeted.

Though clearly ineffective and inefficient, ticketing of the poor by police in Toronto has grown. A Deputy Chief of Police once told me this increase was due to complaints from businesses and pressure from local politicians. According to businesspeople, panhandlers and street people create an unsafe and uncomfortable environment for shoppers. The outcry in Toronto City Council about so-called “squeegee kids” and the resulting ban on them is a case in point. It prompted the Province’s Safe Streets Act.

This form of policing reflects a societal view of the poor as people who interfere with the comfort and aesthetic sensibilities of the affluent, who have the political and social capital to influence government policies.

The City readily approves expensive property development to benefit those with means, while it pleads poverty when it comes to providing affordable social housing and other supports to reduce homelessness and enable those on the city’s streets to live a life of dignity.

High rents have made rental accommodation unaffordable to many. Yet, in deference to the well-off, the City refuses to use its tools to raise revenue for an equitable and inclusive community. Most city politicians embrace a tax policy that favours the rich. We hear talk of “responsibility to the taxpayer,” as if the taxpayer’s is the only voice that matters.

Poverty is rising in Toronto. More people are depending on food banks, and increasing numbers of people lack access to mental health and other social supports. Toronto Foundation’s 2017–18 Vital Signs report calls Toronto “the inequity capital of Canada,” and notes that poverty and wealth inequality have grown rapidly in recent years.

As I said in my 2018 book with Tim Harper, Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing: “Less social justice equals less social order. It seems inevitable that governments choosing this course will be fearful of its consequences and increasingly rely on policing to maintain order.”

We don’t need more policing of the poor, but better policy making and social investment. We don’t need more shelters, which is a patronizing act of benevolence, but more affordable housing and meaningful supports. Policy should not be driven by pandering to the comfort of the wealthy, but by the needs of those with the fewest resources.

Torontonians in every ward should tell politicians what the community’s priorities are and how city finances should be allocated.

First, the city can decide that fines and scarce police resources will not be used to police the poor, except in circumstances where public safety is at risk. More effective alternatives are available.

Second, the City can ask the Province to carry out an independent review of the POA and the Safe Streets Act in terms of their scope and of the benefits and cost of enforcement. This review must include an examination of the effectiveness of financial penalties as a means of “correcting” behaviour.

It’s time for a public conversation.

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Dr. Alok Mukherjee is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University and author, with Tim Harper, of Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing (2018). He is a frequent commentator on policing and public safety and served as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015.

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