Canada’s criminal justice system needs to treat people in prisons in a more humane way.
That was the message advocate for the wrongfully convicted David Milgaard delivered during a speech at Durham College.
“When we fail the wrongfully convicted, that are inside our prisons as I speak, it reflects badly on us and our society,” Milgaard said. “It’s time for me to wake you all up. This can happen to you, I spent most of my life living this nightmare and it is time to say enough.”
Milgaard was just a teenager in Saskatoon when he was arrested for murdering a nursing assistant on Jan. 31, 1969, and later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Decades later, his case became national news when his name was cleared in 1997 due to new DNA testing and the discovery of the true killer’s identity, leading to Milgaard becoming one of the most prominent examples of wrongful conviction in Canada.
The School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Employment Services invited Milgaard to speak to a group of 500 people at Durham College on Nov. 5 in the college’s efforts to bring in speakers related to course material.
“People do not have much love or care inside those walls,” he said, referring to his 23 years in prison. “We cannot let innocent people be disqualified from life, from beauty.”
Milgaard said prison is an awful place, and the longer one remains inside the worse existence becomes, usually isolating convicts rather than rehabilitating them.
“You live inside (prison), you learn it is okay to do wrong,” he said. “Men, women, and sometimes children do. I wonder how many thousands of Canadians have been wrongly convicted for crime less serious than murder.”
Milgaard said people who are wrongly convicted have to spend the rest of their lives permanently damaged by being incarcerated; believing justice no longer exists for them.
But the wrongfully convicted are not the only inmates Milgaard believes we should be concerned about. He says everyone currently within Canada’s criminal justice system is suffering because they lack someone who is willing to be a friend and bring hope to them.
“I know how well people can do when we surround them with love and care,” he said. “I know how well they can fail without. Wrongfully convicted or otherwise.”
The best way to solve these problems, according to Milgaard, is through restorative justice. It is an approach to the justice system he says breaks this cycle, and gives an opportunity to victims, prisoners, and communities by showing love and kindness to victims and offenders, as well as solving the root problems of crime.
“There is a worldwide embrace of restorative justice in many criminal jurisdictions,” he said. The simplest way of looking at it, according to him, is as a peacemaking approach to crime, instead of a war-making one.
Milgaard said it’s important to remember that people, prisoners or not, are still human beings, and have the right to be treated as such regardless of their conditions or status in society.
“People are people, prisoners are not garbage and are really no different than any of us here today,” he said. “We dream, we want to be special and love others, they dream, and want to be special and love others.”
Milgaard pointed to several ways of fixing problems he sees with the criminal justice system when dealing with the wrongfully convicted.
One is the issue of compensation, saying that it “makes him sick,” that the federal and provincial governments, in his view, starve victims of time and resources so they will settle for less once it’s been proven the government was wrong in its sentencing.
Milgaard also demanded improvements be made to the national reform board’s policy and Canada’s conviction review process, saying that when a person maintains their innocence for a long period of time, they are likely telling the truth.
“Canada’s conviction review process has failed miserably, any review process should require us to free people as quickly as we can do so,” he said.
The current review process run by the Department of Justice refuses to do this, Milgaard said, suggesting Canada should look to the United Kingdom as a model for reform. In the UK, ordinary citizens make up the review boards, which are independent from what Milgaard said is the corrupt government system we have now.