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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Private Eyes

Who is watching the watchmen?

Amy Reiswig

Changing of the Guards: Private Influences, Privatization, and Criminal Justice in Canada

Edited by Alex Luscombe, Kevin Walby, and Derek Silva

UBC Press

290 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

In its 2002–03 annual report, the Security Intelligence Review Committee first acknowledged that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had “reorganized its operational structure” and begun to “deploy resources in novel ways,” including through “relationships with organizations not subject to the Committee’s review.” Documents in subsequent years referred to (equally vague) “non-traditional partners” and the need to manage “relations with the private sector.” What this all meant, specifically, remains cloaked in secrecy. But in general, when it comes to keeping the public safe at the national or the street level, there has been a steady shift toward external partnerships, processes, and technologies. Some of these associations are with well-meaning non-profits, others with private companies focused on the bottom line. Regardless, they have implications for the human rights and civil liberties of all Canadians.

With its often surprising essays, Changing of the Guards examines how the criminal justice field is increasingly occupied by third parties in ways that are not necessarily visible to the general public. In four thematic sections, writers touch on various components of the system: policing and private security; community surveillance; courts and correctional facilities; and national security and the border. The University of Waterloo’s Rashmee Singh, for example, considers “the role and influence of voluntary organizations and grassroots feminist agencies in the governance of domestic violence in Toronto.” The researcher Kaitlin MacKenzie offers a fascinating look at the physical and cultural impacts of privatized food service at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, where “punishment can extend beyond what is formally recognized as such.” Nicholas Pope and Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich, both lawyers, explore the bias embedded in risk assessment tools powered by artificial intelligence, which are used to sort offenders by level of risk and occasionally for sentencing. And Jamie Duncan, of the University of Toronto, and Daniella Barreto, of the University of British Columbia, describe how law enforcement’s use of technology — from facial recognition and “smart pole” sensors to the monitoring of social media — intersects with issues of race, inequality, data security, and transparency.

Policy making by procurement is a common theme throughout the book. “Police agencies across Canada are embracing various digital evidence platforms,” Duncan and Barreto write. As “multifarious dependencies” and “forms of private influence” proliferate without the public’s consent, “standard practices of accountability and governance are displaced by and subverted through the terms and conditions of technology vendors.” The guards in charge of the tools and data used by the criminal justice system are indeed changing.

This book also helps readers move past what Lakehead University’s Debra Mackinnon calls “the conventional mindset of policing.” When the local charity Child Find Manitoba evolved into the national-level Canadian Centre for Child Protection in 2006, for instance, it became a government-sanctioned source for monitoring — basically, policing — images of sexual exploitation. Steven Kohm, of the University of Winnipeg, argues that the charitable organization thereby acquired the power “to act as a state agent.” Hats off to anyone who can handle looking at such horrible material in the name of the greater good, but Kohm is curious, and concerned, about how the “reconfigured terrain” will impact criminal justice. “These programs extend the eyes and ears of police while symbolically shifting responsibility for crime prevention to communities and individuals.”

More prolific and unaccountable sentries.

Lianhao Qu; Unsplash

A similar story of spread plays out in Mackinnon’s study of five business improvement areas in Vancouver that use VanConnect, a “citizen-to-government” app, to digitally log, report on, and request municipal services for problems like overflowing garbage, graffiti, discarded needles, and sidewalk use infractions. With their “clean and safe” mandate coupled with economic revitalization goals, BIA ambassadors and “clean teams” use the technology as “a time-saving and cost-effective tool for patrolling the public and private realm (or navigating the splintered streetscape).”

From post-secondary campuses and immigration detention facilities to issues of national security (so-called high policing), the blurring of state and non-state actors is troublesome: we should be questioning how it’s done and who’s responsible as well as whose interests are being served and for what motive. Contractors with different training, pay scales, priorities, and oversight than government employees can present both practical and ethical complications. In the case of immigration detention, for example, the University of Toronto’s Jona Zyfi and Audrey Macklin point out that “profits are to be made at every step of the process in locating, detaining, housing, surveilling, and deporting these individuals.” This arrangement contributes to “the criminalization of migration, the normalization of detention for profit, and the creation of powerful corporate interests invested in the expansion of the immigration industrial complex.”

Edited by a trio of criminal justice and criminology scholars at various stages of their careers, Changing of the Guards brings together contributors from across the country whose investigations combine singular cases with wider philosophical considerations. Academic jargon and repetitive phrasing —“We began by defining,” “We then discussed,” “We concluded with”— can be frustrating at times, but the overall analysis is energized by urgent concerns about individual and community safety, human rights, and democracy itself.

Collectively, this research enlarges and challenges our understanding of the many moving pieces that together constitute justice, whether in thought or in practice. With their unexpected stories, these studies disrupt the assumptions that many of us have about state responsibility, accountability, and public interest. “There is a great deal at stake when it comes to the privatization of criminal justice,” the British criminologist Adam White argues in the book’s foreword. “It is intimately connected to how we understand the world around us and what we want it to look like.”

Amy Reiswig writes a book column in Victoria’s Focus magazine.