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Red Zones: A Timely Study on the Conditions of Release by Adelina Iftene

Posted on Wednesday, 4 May

Assistant Professor at the Schulich School of Law and Associate Director of the Health Law Institute of the University of Dalhousie

Red Zones is an original investigation, through quantitative and qualitative data, into the frequency, causes, and consequences of spatiotemporal conditions of release at bail, probation, and conditional sentences. Using an interdisciplinary lens, Marie-Eve Sylvestre (a legal scholar), Nicholas Blomley (a geography scholar), and Céline Bellot (a social work scholar) tell the story of a criminal justice system which has methodically taken control over and regulated peoples’ time and space, leading to both the suppression of individual auto-determination and the erosion of the Canadian system of rights. Resisting the “normalizing” effect that the widespread use of conditions seems to have in the current justice system, the authors uncover the broad implications these conditions have on bodies, identities, society, and the rule of law.

An obvious contribution of this book is its analysis of an unprecedented and extremely rich data collection (comprised of nearly 95,000 court cases from Montreal and Vancouver) and its quantitative analysis, provided in Part II of the book. Through quantitative data, the authors depict the frequency and types of geographic conditions of release imposed at bail, on probation, and on other conditional sentences, as well as the people most likely to be subjected to them, and the effects of those conditions. The book therefore fills a significant gap in the literature, which is important given that on a yearly basis around 120,000 people in Canada live under court-imposed conditions (about three times more than the number of people in prisons).[1] These numbers do not include the many people who are on bail with conditions. Yet, with a few exceptions, most Canadian literature on sentencing and punishment revolves around incarceration.[2]

Sylvestre, Blomley, and Bellot sound the alarm on the hidden dangers of using conditions of release to respond to the harms of incarceration. Beyond the original and much needed data, the value of Red Zones also resides in the clarity with which it reveals that conditions of release are not an alternative to incarceration. Rather, prison and conditions are “on the same carceral continuum.”[3] Marginalized people are overrepresented at all stages of the penal system. They often end up in the system because of the criminalization of their vulnerabilities. The numerous and oftentimes arbitrary conditions placed on individuals criminalize behaviours that would not otherwise be criminal. These demanding conditions lead to breaches which return individuals to courts and result in more conditions or incarceration for a period of time that, because of the breached conditions, far exceeds what they would have received for their initial offence.

The most powerful part of the book, Part III, brings forward the voices of those who create and apply the law, and of those subjected to it. The two radically different perceptions are beautifully captured in the three chapters of this section and point to challenges and opportunities for change. On the one hand, legal actors’ attachment to conditions and their persistent justifications of the system, even when confronted daily with its ineffectiveness, makes one feel that resistance and calls for change are futile—not unlike how people subjected to conditions must feel while in court, listening to the judge’s orders. On the other hand, the harrowing reality of what it is like for some of the most marginalized to live under such conditions, places a renewed sense of urgency on reform.

Red Zones’ last chapter offers additional essential contributions. First, it argues that the lack of a rights-based discussion in this area is the by-product of the vulnerability of those subjected to these conditions and of a system that worked to insulate itself against rights-based claims. Second, it provides a list of thoughtful and practical recommendations that legal actors and law and policy-makers should implement. Born at the intersection of law, geography, social justice, and criminology, these recommendations are rich and account for the numerous implications criminal justice reforms have on individuals, communities, and systems.

Red Zones should be understood in the context of the general failings of the Canadian criminal justice system. Read through a social justice, critical disability, and human rights lens, Red Zones brings forward another argument highlighting the broader dysfunction of the justice system. After reading Red Zones, it is clear that any sustainable discussion related to the more frequent scholarly and activist engagements related to prisons, decarceration, oppression, and criminal justice reform must also include the often-forgotten issue of conditions of release. This makes Red Zones an essential and timely book about social injustice and the role of the criminal justice system in perpetuating it.

*This book review has been initially published as Adelina Iftene, “Book Review: Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Nicholas Blomley, and Céline Bellot, Red Zones: Criminal Law and the Territorial Governance of Marginalized People” (2020) 35:3 CJLS 543.

[1] Public Safety Canada, Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview, 2018 Annual Report (Ottawa: Public Safety Canada Portfolio Corrections Statistics Committee, 2019) at 5-6, 33-34 & 73-78, online: <www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/ccrso-2018/index-en.aspx>.

[2] See e.g. Michael Jackson, Justice Behind the Walls: Human Rights in Canadian Prisons (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2002); Debra Parkes, “Solitary Confinement, Prisoner Litigation, and the Possibility of a Prisoner Abolitionist Lawyering Ethic” (2017) 32:2 CJLS 165; Adelina Iftene, Punished for Aging: Vulnerability, Rights, and Access to Justice in Canadian Penitentiaries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019); but see Cheryl Marie Webster, Anthony N Doob & Nicole M Meyers, “The Parable of Ms. Baker: Understanding Pre-Trial Detention in Canada” (2018) 21:1 Current Issues Crim Justice 79.

[3] Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Nick Blomley & Céline Bellot, Red Zones: Criminal Law and the Territorial Governance of Marginalized People (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019) at 120-24.

Adelina Iftene, Assistant Professor at the Schulich School of Law and Associate Director of the Health Law Institute of the University of Dalhousie

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