Harsh justice for whom?

By Alan Hustak on September 9, 2010


There are bleeding-heart liberals who are said to be soft on crime and then there are the hardliners who would have us believe that, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, crime is on the rise in Canada and the only fix is to lock up more Canadians.

About 120 out of every 100,000 Canadians, about 14,000 inmates, are doing time in Canada’s 58 federal prisons. The Harper administration now proposes to spend $2-billion to incarcerate another 4,000 because, there are supposedly perpetrators guilty of unreported crimes running loose on the streets. While it wants to build more prisons, the government also proposes an equally misguided policy that would close the country’s six prison farms which were designed, in part, to help integrate inmates back into society. 

It is easy and facile to make crime a political issue. The most obvious flaw in the government’s argument is that most of those unreported crimes are not alarming at all. They would be summary conviction offenses, with little or no jail time involved.  The crime severity index has been on the decline for the past 10 years, and the prison population is aging. 

Who would fill these new prisons? 

 One third of those in federal prisons are aboriginals. Forty-four per cent of inmates are clinically mentally ill.Almost all inmates are from disrupted families, and one in five are homeless people from poor neighbourhoods who can’t afford a lawyer and are a danger only to themselves - victims of a vicious cycle of recidivism. Inmates in federal prisons are, according to the Journal of Public Health, also four times as likely to kill themselves as people on the outside. 

This is not to suggest that hardened criminal and psychopaths who represent about 8 per cent of the prison population, should not be put away. Criminals like serial killers Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olsen should never be paroled. 

There is unreported crime in Canada, but building more prisons to house more First Nations People and the mentally ill won’t solve the problem.  As Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard society points out, building more prisons has corrosive side effects. It will eventually increase the cost to taxpayers with no apparent benefit. 

“In the long run, you are going to end up with other kinds of secondary costs. These people are going to get out of prison, they’re going to be less likely to find jobs and they’re going to be burdens on society in a variety of ways, including crime. To suppress the rate of crime,” Jones said, “you have to frontload your welfare system so all your children have adequate nutrition, they live in non-violent, non-traumatizing environments — because that’s where your violence originates.” 

It already costs $300 a day to keep an inmate behind bars. You can get a room in a five-star hotel for less. 

Bill C-25, the centerpiece of the Conservative government’s policy of harsh justice, could double the annual cost of running prisons from $4.4 billion to $9.5 billion in five years, according to Parliamentary Budget officer Kevin Page. The bill would put an end to the practice of awarding time-served credits to offenders for those in pre-sentence custody. Changing the law, would increase incarceration by another 6 months or so. That would mean an average of 17,000 inmates at any given time compared to the present 13,000 average.

“As much as you can get political capital for looking tough on crime by putting people behind bars, you can’t sustain it in terms of budget,” said Justin Piche  a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa researching prison expansion in Canada. 

“We’re already seeing the (correctional) service not being able to deliver programs in a timely way,” according to correctional investigator Howard Sapers. “We’re already seeing offenders not being prepared properly for release at their parole eligibility dates. We’re already seeing recruitment issues and unfilled positions. All of these issues are just going to be made worse if the service is expected to simply house more people without more resources.” 

Under its new legislation, Ottawa would have to build new and bigger prisons to house an expected increase in inmates, said Sapers. That would cost an additional $618 million a year in operational and maintenance costs, and another $1.8 billion for construction over five years.

Harsh justice doesn’t work. 



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