Alan N. Young In The News

Law professor’s ideas will challenge the comfortable Justice Defiled


Review of Alan N. Young’s Book: Perverts, Potheads, Serial Killers and Lawyers By Paul Barnsley

This book will rattle your cage with ideas that will clash with attitudes you’ve probably never even thought needed to be examined.

Some readers will react angrily; others will nod their heads and say, ‘Yes, of course. Why didn’t I think of this?’ You will laugh. You will think. And you will enjoy.

Justice Defiled: Perverts, Potheads, Serial Killers and Lawyers is a new release from Key Porter Books written by Osgoode Hall law school professor Alan N. Young who attacks every aspect of Canada’s criminal justice system. He goes after judges, law enforcement strategies and tactics, the way lawyers are trained, the way the system works, or doesn’t, and he does it in language that wouldn’t be tolerated in a courtroom: crude, down-to-earth and eminently readable.

Young says there are far too many behaviors in our society that are criminalized for reasons that have less to do with protecting society than with out-dated or small-minded political or social philosophies.

The cops and courts spend way too much time dealing with things that are none of society’s business, he argues.

Former students remember Professor Young as someone who would push them to challenge conventional wisdom. He has been described as a legal thinker of extraordinary brilliance with a highly developed social conscience.

But it’s been four years since he has stood at the front of a lecture hall. He is negotiating his way out of teaching to concentrate on writing. One of the reasons for his disenchantment with academia, he told Windspeaker, is that political correctness and militant feminism have worked against the open exchange of ideas on campus. He refuses to consider any ideas off limits and that has landed him in hot water on more than one occasion.

His book is guaranteed to continue that trend. You know you’re in for a heck of a ride when you see the book is dedicated to Lenny Bruce, Abbie Hoffman and Frank Zappa, 1960s pop culture icons who are remembered for challenging long established ideas and changing the world.

“I’ve done my time in the criminal justice industrial complex, and I should have just walked away from this dying beast,” he wrote in the preface. “But I felt compelled to write this book, and acting on compulsion will have its costs. Exposing the idiocy of lawyers and judges does not bode well for maintaining a successful career in law. Neither law nor religion takes kindly to ridicule.

Painting a picture of hypocrisy and stupidity within a sacred institution can only lead to my being shunned as a heretic. So let the heresy begin.”

In the book’s afterward he refers to his work as a “professional suicide note.”

Young has decided to put the law behind him for the most part, although he will use his legal knowledge to poke the system and advance ideas that are dear to his heart. One of those is the decriminalization of marijuana use, a cause in which he has been a central figure from the beginning.

There’s a chapter on what’s gone wrong with the war on drugs and another chapter on why it makes no sense for police officers to be wasting their time on “pleasure-seeking crime” related to the sex trade. These activities would present little that is harmful to society, he argues, if they weren’t criminal acts.

“My vision, if I was king of the universe, would be to take 300 of the 350 crimes and put them into community courts. I’d just have professionals deal with the most serious breaches of social order,” he said on Oct. 30. “Beyond the fact that it would be a better justice system, I think it would improve the character of Canadians to start to speak for themselves. Before we know it, not only will lawyers be doing our justice and doctors doing all our preventive medicine, but we’ll have professionals coming in to do our parenting too. We’ll be doing nothing but simply consuming and that’s what worries me.This is a grassroots type of book. It’s like get your hands dirty, find out what’s going on in your community and take responsibility.”

He believes the practice of law has been hijacked by the economic upper classes and that has led to great injustices.

“We see that the divide between the rich and poor is growing. Quite frankly, one of the points of organized, democratic society was to reduce that gap and it hasn’t happened. It is reflected and mirrored in the justice system. There’s no doubt about that. The rich people do get the best lawyers; the rich people do tend to be released on bail,” he said. “Aboriginal Canadians, they know this too well because of their over-representation in prisons. They get no breaks in the system. Pre-trial detention is the norm where if you have a wealthy real estate developer in Toronto charged with major corporate fraud, he’s going out within a day. The inequities of society are completely reflected within the criminal justice system.”

Young attacks right-wing attitudes towards “pleasure-seeking crime,” saying, essentially, that things done with no criminal intent-in its original sense-to escape the misery of poverty are criminalized so that the wealthy can justify the inequalities in society. He points to research that he believes proves that many of the things accepted as fact about drug use are far from factual.

“There’s good and bad reasons to use drugs. Let’s forget that we have a legal and moral regime of a drug. You can experiment with drugs in a way that you could even call it a spiritual path or an educational path. You can use drugs simply to withdraw from your surroundings. Now there is a mythology that when you take the drug-it’s called the exposure orientation-you are immediately exposed to the risk of addiction and degradation,” he said.

But an experiment proved that exposure to drugs does not, by itself, create dependency, Young argues. In his book he cites a study called “the Rat Park Chronicles.” Scientists aw that rats in cramped cages would repeatedly return to an opiate solution that intoxicated them. When the cage was expanded and equipped with toys and other sources of stimulation, the same rats did not select the opiate.

“What the Rat Park Chronicles was about was showing that drug-taking is an adaptive mechanism. The first signal that drug-taking behavior was more adaptive than just being exposed to it, where the drug has this pharmacological magic, was Vietnam, because too many heroin junkies came back not doing heroin in the United States. That started social scientists wondering what really was the addictive qualities of the drug. So they did the Rat Park Chronicles and came up with what to me was a very intuitive conclusion that if you have certain comfort levels there’s less experimentation. Experimentation tends to be more of the educational/spiritual experimentation, which is very controlled,” Young said.

“The other approach is the shit-faced approach to intoxication and when you’re in a bad environment you’re going to gravitate towards that every minute of the day. When you’re in a good environment there’s not much of a drive towards the shit-faced approach but occasionally you might experiment for more rarified reasons.”

The parallels between the Rat Park and inner city or reserve life were note worthy, Young said.

“There’s no great mystery to the fact that the worst instances of drug abuse are inner cities or the reserves or other places where the amenities are simply not . . . they’re substandard. I don’t think that it’s really a mystery except the government has shrouded it by trying to make drug-taking an individual, free will choice. They try to completely divorce it from setting so that ‘the problem with America’s youth is that they’re taking drugs.’ It’s not that half of them are living below the poverty level or that there’s limited economic activity for inner-city blacks,” Young said.

He compared the war on drugs to the Salem witch hunts.

“Understanding the witch hunt allows us to understand a lot about modern [times]. It’s a process. It usually takes centuries before we realize our own foolishness. Academics have always talked about this very strong scapegoating instinct we have,” he said. “There are bad people in the world and there are people who should be punished. But because we know that humanity is so prone to scapegoating, we have approached punishment in criminal law with a lot of ambivalence. Not the type of zeal I see from the moral crusaders who feel superior to all the people coming to court and are very happy to send them off to jail and ‘rid this country of scum.’ That type of attitude’s not going to help us make this a better place to live.”