I served as a judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta for 33 years. I had the distinction of being the youngest judge ever appointed to this court, and more than anything it was a tremendous learning experience. My views about crime and punishment and justice are very different now from what they were in the first half of my career. My career now is about speaking on what I see as effective justice.
For the first half of my career, I believed in the concept of ‘tough justice’. As a young judge, I meted out many severe sentences in the belief that I was doing the right thing to make our society a safer place to live. I believed in the theory of deterrence that says that if you punish someone for wrongdoing, they will be deterred from further wrongdoing (specific deterrence), and others who see the punishment will also be deterred from wrongdoing (general deterrence).
My views changed dramatically as a result of my dealings with the aboriginal offenders from the Stoney Indian Reserve at Morley.
From my appointment as a judge on June 21, 1977 until May 1, 1993 I sat in criminal courts in Calgary except for a five-year assignment as a circuit judge. The circuit included Cochrane where all of the cases arising on the Stoney Indian reserve at Morley are heard. In those days, I knew nothing about the people of Morley and that was the way it was supposed to be. A judge must be objective and any prior knowledge of accused persons was a reason for the judge to recuse himself from hearing a case.
In 1993, I was transferred from Calgary to Canmore and Cochrane was added to the Canmore Circuit. The intervening years had seen a tremendous increase in the awareness of the plight of aboriginal people in Canada. In Alberta, ‘The Task Force on the Criminal Justice System and its Impact on the Indian and Métis People of Alberta’ had resulted in The Cawsey Report. The report said that judges should know about the communities in which they sit, and should understand the ‘Worldview’ of the aboriginal people.
Further to this admonition, I read thousands of pages of material on aboriginal culture and justice and spent hundreds of hours getting to know the community and its people. I became very concerned about the lack of assistance for people in need, and about the political corruption and financial mismanagement that seemed to be a major factor in the failure to deal with the dysfunction in this community.
On June 26, 1997, in a case of domestic abuse, in which the lack of funding for a program that was helping the accused appeared to be an important consideration in sentencing him, I ordered the Crown to investigate and produce a report on political corruption and financial mismanagement in the community. The resulting furor made national news.
I imposed a sentence of probation. My rationale was that it is unfair to imprison a man for a crime that is typical of the dysfunction in his community when nothing is being done by the leaders of the community to help those in need.
The sentence was appealed. The Court of Appeal ordered a period of imprisonment.
Following the Appeal Court judgment, the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta said that I had lost my objectivity with aboriginal offenders and ordered me re-transferred to Calgary, so that I would not hear cases involving aboriginal offenders.
I successfully challenged his order. Both the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and the Alberta Court of Appeal agreed that it was a violation of Judicial Independence for him to take disciplinary action against me on the basis of his disagreement with my judicial function.
In October of 2010, I published the book, ‘Bad Medicine, a judge’s struggle for justice in an aboriginal community’. I was motivated by my desire to share what I have learned about justice and about the aboriginal people of Canada.
I am currently writing the sequel, ‘Bad Judgement, a judge’s struggle for judicial independence’.
In March of 2011, I resigned my judicial appointment in order to run in the federal election. I ran as a Liberal because I was disgusted by the Conservative criminal justices initiatives, and I was compelled to speak out against them.
I now seek speaking engagements that will allow me to continue to share the knowledge I have in the areas of aboriginal justice and justice generally.
~ John D. Reilly