Canada’s $10 billion campaign to put more people in prison for longer periods of time will not make this country safer and may backfire by creating a larger criminal underclass, corrections critics warn.
“I don’t think they’re looking at the evidence,” Anthony Doob, a leading Canadian criminologist, told the Star.
Despite historically low crime rates, Canada is expected to spend $9.5 billion to build new prisons and retrofit old ones — a figure that has Conservative politicians scrambling to justify the cost. Last week, Treasury Board Minister Stockwell Day suggested Canada needs more prisons because of an “increase in the amount of unreported crime.” The federal government later cited a six-year-old Statistics Canada survey it said supported his comments.
“The real problem is crime policy is usually reduced to a slogan,” Doob said. “You’re simply increasing the cost to Canadians with no benefit. In the long run, you’re ending 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.”
Even if the rate of crime were trending upward, building more prisons would not suppress the crime rate, said Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.
“To suppress the rate of crime, 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,” Jones said.
What’s staggering for many critics is that Canada seems to be moving toward an American-style prison model that’s being scaled back in favour of cheaper, more effective community-based programs.
Responding to the fiscal crisis and mounting evidence that high incarceration rates don’t result in safer communities, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Florida and California are now backing out of their penal state.
“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,” says Justin Piche, a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa researching prison expansion in Canada.
The average annual cost of maintaining a single female federal offender is $343,810. Maintaining a male inmate in a maximum security prison costs $223,687. These figures, which represent the 2008-2009 fiscal year, were released in a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office in response to legislation passed earlier this year that will dramatically change the corrections system in Canada.
Bill C-25, the centerpiece of the Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda, could double annual prison costs from $4.4 billion to $9.5 billion in five years, according to Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. The bill ends the practice of judges awarding two-for-one credit to offenders for time served in pre-sentence custody.
Page released a report in June that examined the economic impact of implementing the Truth in Sentencing Act.
Under the new legislation, Ottawa would have to build new and bigger prisons to house an expected increase in inmates, the report says. That would cost an additional $618 million a year in operational and maintenance costs, and another $1.8 billion for construction over five years.
The report says changing the law would lengthen the average time in custody from a year and a half to just under two years. Longer stays would mean an average of 17,058 inmates at any given time compared to an average of 13,304 inmates in fiscal 2007/08.
The report estimates that would require an additional 4,189 cells, at a cost of $363 million a year over the next five years to expand existing prisons and build new ones.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews disputed the figures, standing by his earlier claim that officials at Correctional Services Canada told him the initiative would cost $2 billion over five years. (He originally said the price tag would be $90 million.)
His office did not respond to the Star’s interview request.
The correctional service has begun rolling out plans to accommodate more prisoners by retrofitting dozens of institutions across Canada. The service has a three-year plan to add spaces for more than 2,700 offenders nation-wide. This figure does not apply to the construction of new prisons, plans for which have not yet been released.
“Construction is taking place at institutions and locations where we expect the greatest increase of offender populations and where there’s the greatest need,” said Melissa Hart, a Correctional Service of Canada spokesperson.
The overhaul begins in the Maritimes with Springhill Institution, a medium-security facility in Nova Scotia. It opened in 1967 and accommodates 355 inmates but has been operating over-capacity for some time. It currently holds 456 offenders. The project will see 192 spaces added by 2012, Hart said.
“All of the parties need to give their heads a shake and really critically examine how these laws that are being passed are going to negatively impact the entire country,” said Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
Correctional investigator Howard Sapers, who recently submitted his latest annual report on systemic problems plaguing Canada’s prisons to the Public Safety Minister, paints a troubling picture.
“We’re already seeing the (correctional) service not be able to deliver programs in a timely way,” he said. “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.”
– Article from Toronto Star.