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Red Zones: A Must Read for Legal Actors by Ayobami Laniyone

Posted on Wednesday, 4 May

Assistant Professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto

Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Nicholas Blomley, and Céline Bellot’s Red Zones: Criminal Law and the Territorial Governance of Marginalized People is an important work which significantly expands our understanding of how and the extent to which legal actors—operating in seemingly low-stakes, technical proceedings such as bail hearings—contribute to the punitive spatial-territorial governance, surveillance, and control of sex workers, homeless persons, drug addicts, and members of other marginalized groups.

In an impressive mixed-methodological study, the authors provide a history of the origins of judicially imposed conditional orders, which impose spatial prohibitions on those they are applied to (Chapter 3); disturbing empirical evidence of how prevalent they are in bail, probation, and conditional sentencing decisions (Chapter 4); and a compelling analysis (Chapter 5) of how the widespread application of conditional release results in breaches and violations, which in turn yield a “self-generating cycle of surveillance and institutional recidivism” (107). The administrative data the authors collect to make this particular argument is vast and impressive, and their analysis is illuminating. Some of the most compelling portions of the book come, however, when the authors draw on rich, in-depth interviews with judges, justices of the peace, prosecutors, and defence attorneys to characterize how legal actors craft and rationalize conditional orders (Chapter 6) and map the harm that these conditions enact on individuals subject to them (Chapters 7 and 8).

Throughout, the authors argue that conditional release orders constitute an ever-expanding tool of spatial-temporal governance, surveillance, and control that causes serious harm. Running counter to legal actors’ own understanding of the spatial and temporal precision of such orders, the authors demonstrate that these orders frequently prohibit marginalized persons from entering large and ambiguously defined portions of the city for extended periods of time, thereby preventing them from accessing critically needed services, relationships, and resources. The point is made convincingly and the extent to which conditional orders are applied is disturbing. Their original analysis demonstrates, for example, that between 40% to 50% of bail, probation, and conditional sentences in Vancouver involve restrictions that directly affect a person’s mobility, with most conditional orders exceeding 90 days.

Red Zones makes a number of important interventions, particularly to research that has emphasized the role that the police play in the governance, surveillance, and control of marginalized populations in urban areas. This research has carefully described, for example, the heightened police scrutiny and punitive treatment that marginalized individuals experience in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the policing of boundaries separating local skid rows from revitalizing neighbourhoods, and the police role in ‘banishing’ marginalized persons from downtown spaces altogether in some U.S. cities. Police—the most visible actors in the criminal justice system for most of the public—seem to dominate the research literature and public conversations concerning criminal justice reform.

Although the power and discretion of police officers certainly matter, Sylvestre, Blomley, and Bellot’s research brings to light how legal actors’ everyday decision-making in routinized, ostensibly low-level legal contexts empower police and facilitate the punitive treatment that marginalized persons can experience in cities. It complicates any clear distinctions that might be made between legal actors and beat cops, between courtrooms and public parks, and between the power asymmetry in police-citizen encounters and the ostensible legal equality between parties in a courtroom. All matter for the governance and regulation of marginalized persons.

Marginalized Persons

Red Zones is an impressive piece of scholarship and an important contribution to our understanding of how legal actors affect the punitive control and governance of marginalized groups. Questions, however, remain. Perhaps most pressing is the extent to which the application of conditional orders and their consequences for day-to-day life vary among different racialized groups. One guiding expectation from critical race theory and criminological research is that surveillance and punishment will be concentrated among racialized minority groups and experienced more severely by them. To a certain extent—since the legal records analyzed in the book do not mark race, ethnicity, or Indigenous status—this question is impossible to answer (and highlights to the importance of gathering such data to track racial disparities in the legal system in Canada). However, I do wonder if the authors’ qualitative data could address differences and variation in the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized persons and what the implications might be our current moment of racial reckoning.

Red Zones also situates homeless persons, sex workers, and persons suffering from substance dependency alongside students and political demonstrators within a category of marginalized persons subject to conditional orders. To be clear, Red Zones makes clear the politically chilling effect that conditional orders can have when applied to demonstrators and protestors. Recent social movements, like the 2019–2020 Anti-Extradition Law protests in Hong Kong, have derived a significant amount of strength through sustained presence in public places. The use of conditional orders in Canada to disrupt this tactic or political organizers is troubling. But socioeconomically marginalized persons are typically marked and governed differently than students, demonstrators, and political activists. I wonder if there is some utility in theorizing the logic, processes behind, and consequences of saddling conditional orders on persons who may be considered ‘disorderly’ as a function of their socioeconomic marginalization as somewhat distinct (but, of course, in conversation with and related to) the processes at work in applying conditional orders to it a person who may be considered ‘disorderly’ because of their politics or activism.


The authors should be lauded for the data marshalled in support of the argument. The strength of the mixed-methodological approach cannot be overstated: historical, quantitative, and qualitative data combine to make the point clearly and forcefully. A great deal of literature has been directed towards inequity and injustice at the ‘book ends’ of the criminal justice system—policing and incarceration—with relatively less attention to which happens in between. Red Zones is a must read for scholars interested in the critical role that legal actors play.

Ayobami Laniyonu, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto

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