Tapping into the experiences of students with criminal histories
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“I believe everyone has a story,” said Wali Shah, a student at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). “Your struggle may be completely different than mine… I can’t say that my story is more or less powerful in any way.”
On the surface, Shah is an average sociology student, yet, there are many ways in which he is exceptional. Named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 in 2014, Shah is a musician and motivational speaker whose message has reached over 50,000 students and professionals.
Most recently, he partnered with the Peel School Board to reach students in Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon with an original song, entitled “Change the World.”
Shah has a compelling story to tell. Faced with extremely high cultural pressures at a young age, he began to seek belonging in “friends that weren’t really the best of friends.” When he was only 15 years old Shah was arrested and charged with assault.
“I was arrested in front of my family… I remember i t was like a movie,” Shah discloses. “[The officer] started cuffing me and I heard the sound of the click …as soon as he opened the door, I turned my head to my right and at that exact same moment, my mom and my little sister, who was four years old, and my brother, who was about 10, they were walking out of the building. And immediately, everything in my world just broke.”
The lowest moments
The moment of his arrest still resonates powerfully in Shah’s mind.
“ …My mom just started running,” he continues, “We started pulling out of the driveway, and she started yelling at the top of her lungs, ‘Where’s my son going? Give me my son back, I can’t live without my son.’ I remember those words like they’re etched in my brain.”
Shah was taken to a police station and placed in a cell. Eventually, he was released from custody and the charges against him were dropped.
Yet, the experience had profound effects on Shah. He recalls returning to school and experiencing mental health issues, worrying about how to make his parents happy again.
“I think it was a learning experience, like a wake-up call or a lesson,” Shah reflected “I knew that I didn’t [want to] be in that position anymore. I had to change what I was saying, how I was acting, make positive decisions for my future.”
Shah’s ability to overcome obstacles is exceptional, but his experience with criminal justice may not be unique.
In fact, many others have had similar experiences at U of T. While the university does not require students to disclose their criminal history when they apply for admission, professors recall students coming forward when faced with experiences in the criminal justice system. Dr. Scot Wortley, associate professor at the Centre for Criminology, is one such professor.
“I’ve had individuals who have been arrested for crimes as young offenders and as adults, including several gang members, an individual who was convicted of manslaughter, and individuals who have been arrested for drug-related offences,” he said. “All of these students had dramatically turned their lives around, and were looking at university as an avenue towards engagement in the legitimate economy. ”To Wortley, this is heartening.
“ …[T]hey are also a testimony to the fact that mistakes conducted early in your life do not seal your fate,” he explained.
Yet, unlike Shah, few individuals who have had experiences are willing to speak out.
“I think there’s a lot of hidden stuff that you wouldn’t know about,” said Dr. Anthony Doob, Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Criminology. “ …Things happen to students… terrible things happen, and they don’t think that the university can respond to [them].”
Doob recalled an experience from prior years of teaching in which a student had been hesitant to disclose the details of her criminal involvement.
Following a police raid, the student had been arrested for possession of narcotics, and was released from custody hours before she was scheduled to write a test. Extremely distressed, but lacking a medical excuse, the student rushed to class assuming she would be required to complete the assessment. After approaching her and finding out what had happened, Doob sent her home and arranged a make-up test. “Nobody’s gonna make up these stories,” Doob said. “But you could easily see, in a big university like this, where you go to the website and there’s rules about doctor’s notes… and having to document everything, that somebody could say… these things aren’t covered by this.”
Doob cited the fear of potential stigmatization as an important reason for why students stay silent.
“We have thousands of faculty who teach,” Doob said. “Some of them, maybe most of them, would be understanding, and a lot of them won’t be.”
He added that it is up to students to take the initiative and volunteer their criminal history, in order to find out whether accommodations can be made.
Understanding the system
Many youth commit offenses which has led criminologists to hypothesize about the reasons behind criminal behaviour — which, in turn helps justice officials understand how to better handle young offenders.
Theories on the causes of youth crime can vary drastically. Dr. Victoria Sytsma, assistant professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, cites just a few reasons why youth may turn to crime.
“There are a number of known risk factors with regard to youth crime,” Sytsma explains. “These factors include low social capital… delinquent peer groups, [and] residing in neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates and limited access to social services.”
Wortley addressed whether students in university may fall into these categories.
“I think when you’re looking at a population like the University of Toronto, you’re looking at a pretty privileged group of students,” Wortley explained. “Even if they do come from poor, disadvantaged communities, they’ve likely overcome the odds to get to U of T.”
“If anything, I would think drug use and vice-related crimes are probably more prevalent among the affluent,” he added.
Avenues for support
The fact that students who have gone through the criminal justice system largely do not feel comfortable coming forward with their stories makes it difficult for the university to provide them with support.
Currently, the university offers a variety of services for students dealing with personal problems. However, students who are seeking support specifically due to criminal involvement have no place to go.
Wortley explained the reasoning behind this omission. “ …[I]t’s [difficult] at this time to document whether there’s a special need for support services for students with a criminal record,” he said.
Whether or not it is practical for the university to establish a service specifically for students involved in the criminal justice system is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, the potential consequences of having a criminal record can be dire.
“Where a criminal record could negatively impact someone would be in the seeking of employment,” Wortley said. “…There may be students who can perform at a high level within the university environment, but be disadvantaged when getting a full-time job after graduation because they have a criminal record.”
Having a criminal record may also affect a student’s ability to find part-time employment or volunteer opportunities during their studies. Even if a position is not technically restricted, evidence of a criminal background puts applicants in a negative light. If students are repeatedly denied access to these opportunities, they could face perpetual difficulties in improving their resumes, or applying to graduate or professional programs.
“It is crucial to keep non-serious and first time offenders out of the system as much as possible through the use of extra-judicial measures,” Sytsma emphasized, “which do not leave youth with a criminal record.”
This considered, it is interesting to see how institutions beyond the university level handle youth justice. The diversion program at Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS), for example, aims to redirect Aboriginal offenders away from prisons and rehabilitate them back into the community.
Colette McCombs, manager of the Community Council Program at ALS, explains how the process works. “ …[W]hen an individual is charged, they appear before the criminal court, and at that point, our court workers will interview them to see if they’re eligible for diversion… We then take them out of the criminal justice system and place them before members of the community.”
According to the council’s decisions, individuals are required to complete certain tasks in order to avoid a jail sentence. Past decisions have included mandated community service, craft-making, attending treatment programs, and participating in traditional ceremonies.
McCombs emphasized the importance of such programs in light of the negative experiences Aboriginal offenders, especially youth, often have within the justice system.
“I think a lot of the youth have had negative experiences with police, so right away, they’re put in a position where they’re in fear of the criminal justice system,” McCombs said. “ …I think that anybody who’s been through the criminal justice system and can compare it to their experience coming here through the diversion program, they can see a vast difference.”
Through integrating rehabilitative measures with the justice system, ALS has observed positive results like those that McCombs describes. The Council also helps Aboriginal youth establish strong ties to a cultural community within the city of Toronto.
“ …I think there’s a lot of things that could be said about the successes of the program,” McCombs said. “Just seeing people come in and actually successfully complete something in their lives, where a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to ever successfully complete something… that’s remarkable to watch.”
Many students may be dealing with the reality of a criminal past. According to Doob, it is imperative that they take the initiative to speak to others and seek help if they need it.
“We do offer student counseling and student assistance programs that are open to any student,” Wortley said. “…[M]aybe the way to reach students with a criminal background who may require additional support is to just advertise those services to everybody.”
Shah cited the UTM Health and Counselling Centre as an excellent resource, and hopes that the university will continue to invest in counselling services for its students.
In light of his passion for music and spoken word poetry, Shah also urged the university to invest in more creative activities. He recommends “…giving students an opportunity to express their stories and express, not only their artistic ideas, but their academic ideas in an artistic way.” In lieu of purely academic assignments, Shah would appreciate more classroom evaluations that integrate components of creative expression.
“I think the fact that students are able to rise from criminal behaviour… to actively engage, and often at a high level, in the university environment, is testimony that people deserve a second chance and proof that they can be rehabilitated,” Wortley says.
Shah emphasized that the key to moving forward is dialogue. “ …I went through this, but everyone goes through something,” he said. “…[W]e shouldn’t be scared to talk about that …I think that’s where a lot of change starts, having that discussion.”