Prisoners of Ideology

The federal government’s quiet reform of the country’s prison system might have gone unnoticed by many Canadians if not for the work of Graham Stewart and Michael Jackson.

Stewart, former head of the John Howard Society of Canada, and Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, have released an illuminating review of the direction in which the Conservative government is taking the corrections system.

Their critique, A Flawed Compass: A Human Rights Analysis of the Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety, accuses the government of — surprise! — favouring ideology instead of data, and ignoring the human rights of prisoners, when it comes to developing corrections policy.

These are serious concerns that need to be addressed.

They contend that the Harper government has ignored reams of research and conclusive evidence about prison policy — some of it produced by government employees — in favour of slogans and pandering. They fear that the resulting direction the government is taking — based on the 2007 report Roadmap to Public Safety — will not only be extremely costly, but will fail to make the public safer.

The Harper government has long talked a good game on law-and-order, promising to get tough on crime. Problem is, crime rates have been dropping across Canada, so in order to win public support for its agenda, the government has had to rely on emotion rather than facts. And the government is happy to admit it. Critics “try to pacify Canadians with statistics” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told an audience last year. “Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say, crime is really not a problem.”

It is true that statistics matter little to individuals who have been personally victimized. But empirical evidence should matter to policy-makers. Crime rates are one piece of evidence about what is and what is not working in the corrections system. Ignoring research and statistics is a formula for producing bad policy.

Among the key recommendations the government has adopted is ending “statutory releases” after prisoners serve two-thirds of their sentences, in favour of earned parole that is tied to following a corrections plan. The 2007 panel said the shift would improve public safety.

But experts such as Stewart and Jackson say it would have the opposite effect because, instead of being supervised in the community, prisoners would serve longer and then be dumped into communities with no conditions. Ending a program that might be perceived as offering early release to prisoners may be good optics, but is it good policy?

The Harper Conservatives consistently confuse the two. One need not be a university-based criminologist to see how releasing prisoners with no conditions and no support might actually make the public less safe than earlier release that comes with conditions and support.

The Harper government would move the country’s correctional system closer to the U.S. model, which would see more prisoners incarcerated for longer periods, thanks to mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of gradual release. The plan would see the construction of U.S.-style super prisons.

But is the U.S. really any safer as a result of its jam-packed prisons? The Canadian government might find it useful to talk to some American criminologists, who are horrified about the politicization of their corrections system, before taking us down the same path.

– Article from The Ottawa Citizen.