Drugs

Court-Imposed ‘Red Zones’ Are Ruining Drug Users’ Lives

Canada’s first in-depth study of release conditions found life-threatening consequences for users banned from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

by Sarah Berman
Oct 31 2017, 5:18pm

Photo by Jackie Dives

At a time when drug users are dying in record numbers, the authors of a new study say it's time police and courts rethink release conditions that ban people from neighbourhoods like Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Co-author and law professor Marie-Eve Sylvestre told VICE so-called "red zones" are widely used in drug-related cases and they threaten basic access to food, shelter, and other life-saving services.

"We believe these types of conditions threaten multiple constitutional rights," she said, listing the right to presumption of innocence and the right to reasonable bail.

The researchers accessed court records from 2005 to 2012 and interviewed dozens of subjects to court orders in 2014. Red zones were often applied without criminal charges and in some cases banned people from their own homes.

"It didn't make sense," reads an interview with a woman banned from Vancouver's notorious Hastings Street. "My bank was there, my home was there, my probation was there, my doctor was there. Come on guys! All of Hastings Street? Hello! My whole life is there!"

The study found that 97 percent of all bail orders in Vancouver included some conditions of release like curfews or no-contact orders. In drug-related cases, 53 percent of bail orders included a "red zone."

Of those drug-related red zone cases, 92 percent of the area restrictions were concentrated in the Downtown Eastside.

As most of us know, the Downtown Eastside is home to Canada's poorest residents. The neighbourhood is unique in that there's a ton of social assistance and addictions resources in a small several-block area. It's where hundreds of people pick up their welfare cheque, eat a free or cheap meal, check into detox or spend a night in a shelter. It's also where multiple supervised injection sites prevent overdose deaths daily.

Interview subjects described feeling "forced to breach conditions all the time," said Sylvestre. "They needed the services."

Though the study looked at data from before the city's overdose crisis, Sylvestre says her research shows how bad the courts are at treating a public health emergency. She says red zones are a "costly, inefficient and counterproductive" way of moving impoverished residents away from the area.

In interviews with judges and lawyers, Sylvestre found the orders to be "well intentioned" but failing in their purposes.

Instead of helping drug users start a new life elsewhere, red zones increase users' interactions with police and clog the criminal justice system. "All these breaches amount to heavy criminal records," she said.

Instead, the study recommends authorities do a better job of matching marginalized people with services. "Legal actors are not social workers, they haven't been trained to provide social services," Sylvestre said.

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