With increasing violence on our streets, including a disturbing and continuing trend of random stranger assaults and a dangerously untenable situation boiling over on the Downtown Eastside, there is no denying that Vancouver is facing enormous challenges.
To date, however, very little has been done by our elected officials to meet these challenges head on. Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his supporters on city council have been largely turning a blind eye to these issues over the course of their tenure in office. They have asked for a voluntary "decampment" of the area, which has been futile given the fact that people appear to have nowhere else to go.
The provincial government—by and large—is no better, and our cities’ problems don’t even appear to be on the federal government’s radar.
But still, the headlines seem to keep piling up. Recently, we saw three stranger assaults take place in just over two hours in the Fairview neighbourhood, a group of young girls brutally attacked on public transit, and a number of illegal firearms recovered from a tent in the DTES encampment.
Many residents, including women, seniors, and those with young children, have expressed increasing concerns about their safety in the city. Some have taken to social media to say that they no longer feel safe walking after dark or in certain areas of the city at all.
While there is nothing to indicate that unhoused persons on Vancouver’s DTES are responsible for the rise in violent crime, there is little doubt that a sense of lawlessness and disorder is becoming a central theme in our city’s downtown core.
There is also little doubt that rampant drug use is contributing to this volatile and dangerous environment; not only for regular citizens who no longer feel safe, but also for drug users themselves, who have been exposed to toxic supplies and an opioid crisis that seems unending.
Some, including former attorney general David Eby, have placed a portion of the blame on the justice system. They say it needs to be reformed to properly deal with prolific offenders—and they very well may have a point.
One important tenet of our justice system is rehabilitation. Offenders ought to be rehabilitated in order to not reoffend and to be properly re-integrated into society. Our system believes that even the most heinous offenders must have some hope of rehabilitation, as was recently confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in R v. Bissonette.
But offenders who are stuck in a cycle of addiction need special help when it comes to rehabilitation.
Their need for such measures is only compounded where they are experiencing homelessness and displacement. After all, studies have shown time and time again, that even where an offender “gets clean” while serving a custodial sentence, their chances or relapsing are astronomical once they are released and return to their former environment.
Where their former environment is an environment of homelessness, where drug use runs rampant and open in the streets, there is little hope for any person addicted to drugs to remain clean. The odds are against them, and their potential for relapse—both in substance abuse and in criminality—is not insubstantial.
Right now, there are prison-based drug treatment programs available for offenders who need them. But they are often completely voluntary, and do very little to assist a person who's addicted in changing their environment and their habits post-release.
So perhaps it is high time for our justice system to create an intensive, multifaceted approach to comprehensive drug rehabilitation and housing in lieu of traditional incarceration for drug-addicted offenders.
This is the approach that has recently been adopted in Norway. Courts there now have the ability to sentence a drug-addled offenders to mandatory, comprehensive drug rehabilitation programs, rather than ordering a prison sentence. If the offender fails to comply with the requirements of the program, they could be sent to prison as a consequence for doing so.
This novel approach was adopted by Norway after they realized that their country had a serious problem with drugs and homelessness. With opioid users dying on the streets, they decided to take action; and this approach was it.
So far, it seems to be working.
Interesting, Eby seemed to gesture towards something like this—albeit rather crudely—during a recent news interview wherein he floated the controversial idea of mandatory treatment in dire cases of drug addiction and mental illness. He made the valid point that some people are so ill that they will expose themselves to repeated overdoses, causing themselves dire injury and risking death before getting help.
He said that we can do better; and I agree with him that we can.
We can and we should consider novel, intensive, and multifaceted approaches to rehabilitate the most serious cases of drug addiction in our community. Some of these approaches may involve mandatory programs, ordered by the justice system.
And while some community-based advocates may object to such an approach, calling it a violation of civil liberties, we have to ask ourselves when does advocacy become enabling? When does charity become cruelty? And when does autonomy become accountability?
So far, Norway’s mandatory court-ordered rehabilitation approach to drug users who offend seems to be working well. The recidivism rate for offenders who have gone through the program has dropped significantly, which bodes well for participants and Norwegian society on a whole.
It’s something for us to seriously consider. After all, Vancouver cannot wait much longer.