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Literacy and the Law

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recently completed an 18-month project, Literacy and Policing in Canada. Working with literacy organizations, community groups, governments, and police agencies across Canada, the study produced the Literacy Awareness Resource Manual for Police that provides valuable information to those within law enforcement as well as anyone interested in literacy development and its role in social growth and improvement. As well, the website Literacy and Police: Target Crime with Literacy has been developed to provide further information on the issue.

The statistics utilised by the project were from the 2003 International Adult Literacy
and Skills Survey (IALSS) participated in by seven countries. The Canadian portion, in which more than 23,000 Canadian adults took part, was coordinated by Statistics Canada. For the purposes of the study, literacy was defined as “the ability to use and understand information that is fundamental to daily life at work, at home, and in the community”.

The statistics presented in the IALSS survey are very troubling. In Canada, about 58% of adults aged 16 to 65 have the basic reading skills they need for most everyday reading. The other 42%—9 million adult Canadians—have low literacy skills and scored below Level 3, which, according to the Government of Canada, is the minimum
level required by an individual to be able to cope in society.

This project found that the role of literacy in the criminal justice system must not be underestimated. Low literacy can lead to feelings of isolation and situations of vulnerability that can result in either criminal acts or victimisation. Statistically, offenders are three times as likely as the rest of the population to have literacy problems. In fact, 65% of people entering correctional facilities have less than a Grade 8 level of literacy skills.

The reasons for offences and re-offences vary but can be significantly impacted by
low literacy. Those who do not fully understand the terms of their probation, court summons, or other literacy-dependent factors of the legal system may face repeat arrests, reminding us that events do not always happen due to criminal intent but sometimes because of misunderstandings.

Everyone interacting with the criminal justice system, whether as a suspect, witness, or victim, must deal with police and legal jargon, which can be more difficult and stressful for individuals with low literacy skills. At any stage of this process, a person involved with the system will have to read documents, answer questions, and fill out forms.

This manual includes a judge’s comments on police jargon used by police that demonstrates how challenging it can be. For example: “A person does not tell them his name; he identifies himself ”, “they [police] do not watch or look; they surveille”, and “they [police] do not go somewhere; they proceed”.

Research has shown that literacy programs have the capacity to decrease criminal activity and repeat offenses. According to the U.S.-based Rand Corporation, investing $1 million into literacy programs that assist inmates to graduate from high school would prevent 258 crimes a year, versus the same amount of money invested in prison space for career criminals, which would prevent only 60 crimes a year. Ways must be found to keep inmates in the programs through to completion. The Adult Based Education program saw inmates’ grades raise nearly three levels upon completion; however, the completion rates were only 22% over a five-year period.

The legal system is now recognising that low literacy is a special circumstance, and this understanding requires that all personnel involved in the system be trained to look for signs of low literacy. The emphasis is on individual officers to make sure that people with low literacy levels understand their situation, their rights, and the effects of their decisions. As the manual states: “Canada is a multicultural society with Charter protections for everyone”, and a failure to assist those with low literacy skills “may be a form of systemic discrimination”.

The responsibility does not rest on the legal system alone, though, and individuals should also alert officials of their needs. However, until there is no longer any social stigmatisation surrounding low literacy, people will continue to feel ashamed of letting others know that they are struggling to understand what is happening, and they will continue to be unable to participate as fully and positively in their communities.

For further information, please refer to www.policeabc.ca.


The role of literacy in the criminal justice system must not be underestimated. Low literacy can lead to feelings of isolation and situations of vulnerability that can result in either criminal acts or victimisation."

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