Crime Down, Prison Boom Looms

If the federal government gets its way, Canadians will witness a boom in prison construction coinciding with the longest steady decline in crime rates in Canadian history.

That’s the consequence of the various pieces of “get tough” legislation recently passed or currently working their way through Parliament.

Consider this: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for “serious drug crimes” in the National Anti-Drug Strategy plus the limiting of judicial discretion in regard to credit for time served in pre-trial detention is projected by Statistics Canada to grow the rate of incarceration by as much as 10 per cent.

The government claims that ending two-for-one credit for pre-trial detention will alleviate the overcrowding crisis in provincial detention centres by encouraging more guilty pleas and introducing “truth in sentencing.” The resulting surge in Canada’s rate of incarceration, currently hovering around 149 per 100,000 population, would require roughly 3,000 new beds for men and about 10 to 15 per cent of that number for women.

So what? Bad people go to jail, right? It should be that simple, but it’s not.

When governments “crack down,” the American evidence shows that they quickly catch the worst of the worst before reaching into the pool of the non-violent – people who might represent a threat to themselves but are little risk to their communities.

The worst crime for most of these people is either that they are racial minorities (aboriginals will be particularly hard hit) or that they started falling through the cracks in elementary school and carry the burden of various learning and cognitive challenges, including ADD, acquired brain disorders, ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, depression, trauma and a whole alphabet soup of psychiatric and psychological syndromes.

The result is prisons swollen with greater numbers of the non-violent, mentally ill, and poor and racialized minorities.

Currently, approximately 10 per cent of the federal prison population is double-bunked. Prison crowding undermines the success of treatment and degrades the working conditions of staff, encouraging higher rates of staff turnover and poorer treatment outcomes for prisoners. Most non-violent prisoners can be more effectively, humanely and economically treated in the community than they can in prison, and the government has the research to prove this.

Community supervision costs roughly $23,500 a year per person compared with approximately $101,000 a year per person on average across all security levels to keep a man in prison, and $185,000 a year per woman.

Then there’s the issue of where to put them. Current infrastructure is at or over capacity. The passage of Bill C-25 will require temporary housing in the short term, but it’s the long term that ought to concern Canadians – for the only land that the federal government can start building on quickly is the prison farms.

Some of the best farmland in Canada could be swallowed up by super-max prisons based on the American model. That is the vision endorsed by the “independent panel” commissioned by the government and chaired by the former minister of corrections for the province of Ontario, Rob Sampson.

So let’s connect the dots. The crime rate has been declining for 26 years – those are the government’s numbers – but the same government wants to build more prisons at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars.

Who benefits? In the U.S. case, private prison contractors and correctional officer unions. Everyone else loses: education, social assistance and health care.

Does prison building buy safer communities? Not in the United States. Money spent on increased imprisonment and longer, harsher sentences is money wasted, because more prisons do not increase community safety – and there is ample evidence that prisons create and reinforce criminal attitudes and predispositions.

If more prisons resulted in less crime, the United States would be the safest place in the world.

Canada does not need to grow its rate of incarceration, particularly in a context of declining crime rates. We do not need to “get tough,” but we do need to “get smart.”

Craig Jones is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

Kim Pate is the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

– Article from The Toronto Star on October 17, 2009.



  1. Michael Coughlin on

    We should be spending our money on hospitals and treatment centers. Prisons are just crime schools. If you get out of prison you can have a hard time getting a job, but your cell mate probably taught you about making money the “easy” way. Why would you become an upstanding citizen when you have been ostracized by the government for following a way of life that they don’t approve of? Prisons make criminals. Our government and the people who support them are ruining our good name.

  2. Anonymous on

    This is the reason the conservatives want to be tough on crime. Just look at the US, with their prison boom, lots of money and all you have to do is lock up more people. What a perfect plan, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for Canada to catch on.

  3. Dave on

    That’s funny! We all know the kid in school who eats the glue. Wow man, I can’t stop laughing. Yea, the kid who eats the glue…

    A funny person like you should be on a stage! Not Anonymous!

  4. Anonymous on

    I live in the United States and can tell you that having tons of laws that lead to prison time don’t make me feel safer, they make me fear and hate the police. That holds true for lots of others too. I don’t fear criminals on a regular basis; I fear my government and police.

    Due to the huge number of offenses that can lead to jail and prison time, every single person in the U.S. can be arrested for something. What happens when the number of offenders exceeds the number of police and prison space? Police become selective… how do they select who to arrest and imprison? That’s where the real trouble starts.

    Who will be locked up most? In the U.S., the rich people don’t generally see much, if any prison time. Even the ones who commit heinous crimes that lead to the widespread ruining of lives. Rich people are more likely to sue and have influential friends, so police generally concentrate on easy targets — the rest of the public.

    What happens when police effectiveness and promotions are based on the number of arrests made each month? Police become predators instead of beneficial parts of society. They harass citizens and pick on easy targets who are less likely to effectively defend themselves.

    When vast numbers of people are being locked up, people should ask themselves why that is. Are all the people really deserving such treatment? In the U.S., you can be arrested for just about anything it seems. Arresting people is big business in the U.S.

    Living in a metro area, I and my family members have been slow-rolled by police on the highways despite fitting in with the accepted “norm” of the area. Cops run around looking for people to bust and receive promotions from. Where do they conduct their predatory operations? Not the rich areas — the rich people have great lawyers and influential friends.

    Carefully consider such things before giving politicians and law enforcement more power to lock people up that they don’t like. Take a look at the U.S. and ask yourself if you would feel safer and more free as a citizen of the U.S. than Canada with all the harsh laws and prisons.

    Be sure to vote once you come up with an answer. You know the people pushing for more imprisonments and harsher penalties for petty offenses will.

  5. Anonymous on

    Harper, and the other politicians supporting C-15, are so naive it’s pathetic. It’s actually scary to realize just how stupid the people are who have come into important government positions. Anyone who could endorse such lunacy wouldn’t hesitate to do other crazy things, like send Canadians to a war in some god forsaken hell hole, like Afghanistan or somewhere, to get shot or blown up for no good reason. That would be pretty insane too, wouldn’t it?

    Have you ever really looked at Harper on TV? Look how he walks. He looks like a brain damage victim and a geek combined together. He looks like the kid in school who eats the glue. He doesn’t look like a normal intelligent person. When you look like a dork and you walk like a dork, chances are you’re a dork, and Harper is the dorkiest looking dude around.

  6. Dan-o on

    It is clear to me that Canada is adopting the USA’s policies towards transforming a great nation into a police state. There’s big money in prisons afterall, plenty of room for new “needed” taxations to pay for all those prisons and corrections officers/admistration fees etc. Are you sure there’s not a Bush in office up there?

  7. Joe on

    It ok for the Emergency departments to be over crowded and not have a nursing home bed for the elderly. This government wants to treat the sick with force and punishment by putting them into cages. Rather than building hospitals they like to shut down hospitals and give the tax money to the prison industries. Treating a health problem as a police problem. The Harper Government are Canada’s stupidest people. They whalk with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other hand. Canada needs Hospitals please not prisons you idiots.