Low Literacy and Criminal Justice

The problem

People with low literacy have difficulty reading text and, sometimes, making sense of what people are saying. These difficulties get worse if the person is under stress—if they feel anxious, intimidated, or overwhelmed.

Another cause that makes it difficult for people to understand written or spoken information is the use of jargon. Jargon is specialized words and phrases used by particular groups and professions. Some examples: duty counsel, arraigned, lock-up, plainclothes officer, rap sheet.

Everyone who faces Canada’s justice system, as a suspect, witness, or victim, must cope with police and legal jargon. Since this is extra difficult for people with low literacy, this can be even more stressful for them than for skilled readers.

Not being able to read well makes it difficult for a person to cope with all aspects of the criminal justice system. At any stage, a person involved with the system will have to:

Often, they are asked to do these in an unfamiliar environment (a police station, law office, or courtroom), and to do them quickly. These add to the person’s stress, which in turn makes it even more difficult to understand the information that they read and hear.

How low literacy affects suspects and offenders

Dealing with suspects and offenders who have low literacy can cause problems at all stages of a criminal case, from the first police response to a complaint to the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of a crime. The problems then go on to affect the parole system and rehabilitating the offender.