“It’s like parenting, we don’t always give them candy, sometimes they need to eat their vegetables too. And that vegetable sometimes is jail.”
That’s a direct quote from a presentation Sgt. Renee Martynuik gave to the Edmonton Police Commission on November 16, 2023. Martynuik’s presentation was part of a report on a study from the Integrated Offender Management unit within the Diversion and Desistance Branch on 100 “persistent and prolific” offenders which was conducted from Jan. 1, 2023 to Aug. 15, 2023.
Of the 100 offenders in the study, 49 were Indigenous and 41 were white. Only six percent of Edmonton’s population is Indigenous, while white people make up 60 per cent.
“They don’t want to get a job, they don’t want to go to work. They want to hang out with their bros and play videogames and steal cars. It’s a very pro-criminal anti-social life that results in low complexity crimes, a revolving door of justice,” said Martynuik when describing the people in the study.
Martynuik acknowledged that there was an over-representation of Indigenous people in their study cohort but said that it’s important to “understand that our unit is meant to pick out people who are committing harm and the harm data doesn’t show race.”
In 2021 Martynuik told the Edmonton Journal that the vast majority of offenders that her branch focuses on commit property crime.
“Things like having their kids' bikes stolen, things like having their vehicle stolen, things like having their license plate stolen, break and enters to homes, mischiefs to vehicles, mischiefs to homes and mischiefs to bus shelters, things of that nature,” said Martynuik in 2021.
Martynuik describes the people in her study as the “hidden homeless.” They’re not “on the nod on the corner,” or sleeping in encampments; they're couch surfing or staying in AirBnBs or hotel rooms.
The Integrated Offender Management unit was launched in 2017 and expanded into the Diversion and Desistance Branch in 2020. It was built around pairing social workers with EPS detectives and was supposed to help prolific offenders meet basic needs like shelter, food, clothing and treatment according to reporting from the Edmonton Journal.
The presentation doesn’t mention poverty once and mentions housing only to say that housing doesn’t matter when it comes to determining whether that person is going to reoffend.
Temitope Oriola, a criminology professor at the University of Alberta, disagrees with Martynuik and the EPS that housing has no effects on recidivism.
“It is disingenuous to decouple homelessness and the precarity that comes with it among repeat offenders from their criminal activities. It flies against decades of criminological research,” said Oriola in an interview with the Report.
Oriola also noted the over-representation of Indigenous people in study.
The EPS strategy might reduce crime over the short-term, said Oriola, but the danger is that “it leaves unaddressed the root causes of the involvement of such persons in crime. In other words, the approach mistakes symptoms for disease.”
While the report doesn’t mention poverty Sgt. Martynuik said that one of the greatest successes of the study came from having detectives drive offenders to their various court-ordered appointments or to treatment.
“Transportation seemed to be a real issue for a lot of our guys,” said Martynuik.
Dan Jones is a former Edmonton cop and a criminology professor at Norquest College. He disagrees with comparing policing to parenting and eating your vegetables with going to jail.
“You are minimizing the humanity of these people,” said Jones. “They aren’t children, they’re human beings. I don’t like the analogy of vegetables either. Do people have to go to jail when they’re a danger to the community, yes… but we over incarcerate significantly.”
Jones says there isn’t nearly research done on the trauma of going to jail. Lack of sleep and being traumatized from witnessing or experiencing violence can do significant harm.
Sarah Auger is an advocate with the organization Moms Stop the Harm. “Comparing policing Indigenous people to parenting follows in the long Canadian tradition of infantilizing Indigenous people. This is more of the same,” says Auger.
Her son Lakotah was in and out of provincial jail several times before passing away from drug poisoning in December 2022. She does not agree with comparing jail to eating your vegetables.
“Jail is absolutely the worst thing that could have happened to him. He went in with a moderate alcohol addiction and he came out with a drug addiction and a different person. He had to adopt a persona. He was more violent,” said Auger.
“I do education inside prison and nothing good can be said about people’s time inside prison or jail. Do these cops and these police commissioners know what happens inside a prison, what happens to someone’s spirit inside of a prison?”
Auger also disagrees with the analysis that housing has nothing to do with recidivism. During a more than two-year stretch where her son was in an apartment he didn’t commit any new crimes. “His addictions were contained. He could drink in his own home and not go cause chaos somewhere else.”
City councillor and outgoing police commissioner Sarah Hamilton called the presentation “exceptional.” Outgoing police commission chair Erick Ambtman called it “very impressive.”