The Conservative government’s legislative push to “get tough-on-crime” is drawing increasingly widespread attacks from critics who call it misguided and a waste of billions of dollars. In an open letter published last Sunday, more than 500 physicians, scientists, and researchers from across the country condemned the recent Bill S-10, stating that it is overly costly, will do little to reduce drug use or the crime rate, and may cause more health and social problems.
Bill S-10 is a piece of legislation meant to target organized crime, but it would also introduce mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug possession. It is just one of several government bills that aim to change the Criminal Code of Canada and introduce tougher sentencing.
Consequences of tougher sentencing
“We will see more people in for longer periods of time with fewer opportunities for them to get out, earn their release, and be in the community contributing,” said Kim Pate, executive director of Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, referring to mandatory minimum sentences.
Liberal MP and public safety critic Mark Holland also spoke of the ineffectiveness of tougher sentencing.
“The problem is not only that it is egregiously expensive, it actually diminishes the amount of money in a general sense for rehabilitation and programming,” he said. “It actually drives up the recidivism rate so you actually have less safe communities. In the ultimate irony, you spend billions and billions of dollars to create a less safe country.”
“The rhetoric is that it will affect the crime rate,” said Pate. “[But] if that was a remedy for creating safer communities, then presumably the United States should be the safest place in the world to live.”
According to Statistics Canada, police-reported crime in Canada has continued to decline in both volume and severity for over a decade. In 2009 Statistics Canada reported that the Crime Severity Index (CSI), measuring the severity of police-reported crime, declined 4 per cent in 2009 and stood 22 per cent lower than in 1999. Statistics for 2010 have yet to be published.
Justin Piché, a Carleton University Ph.D. candidate who researches the Canadian justice system, said, “In the context of a fiscal crisis and decades worth of declining police-reported crime rates, to me it makes little sense to be pursuing a prison expansion agenda at this time. … It is the most costly way to address the complex conflicts and harms in our communities that we call crime.”
According to a June 2010 report released by the Parliamentary Budget Office, the cost of just one bill, the Truth and Sentencing Act – which limits credit given to prisoners for time spent in custody before and during trial – is expected to exceed $5 billion. According to the report, it will also require the building of about 4,189 federal jail cells at a cost of $1.8 billion over the next five years.
This greatly exceeds government estimates, which projected the act would cost only $2 billion over the next five years.
When asked about the significant differences in projected costs, Parliament Budget Officer Kevin Page explained, “[The government] said they could reduce the cost by looking at double bunking. We assumed that we would maintain capacity rates at the different prisons at roughly the same rates when we did our calculations.”
The process of double bunking – which according to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s CBC statement “is not a big deal” – violates prison standards set by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
It is also reported to lead to increased incidents of institutional violence.
In June 2010, Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator appointed by the government to review the Correctional Service of Canada’s polices, published a report revealing that double bunking in Canadian penitentiaries has increased by 50 per cent in the past five years.
The report revealed that exemptions to UN prison standards are also made in “segregation cells,” where two inmates must share space designed for one for up to 23 hours a day.
“Given high rates of mental illness, drug addiction, violence and criminal gang membership, it is difficult to see how double-bunking can be viewed as a correctionally appropriate or sustainable solution to crowding pressures in either the short or medium terms,” Sapers’s report stated.
Effects on the mentally ill
According to Sapers’s report, “the prevalence and rate of mental illness in the offender population far exceeds that of general society. We estimate at least one-in-four new admissions to federal [correctional institutions] present some form of mental health illness.”
An internal Correctional Service of Canada report, obtained by Postmedia News, stated that to handle increasing inmate populations CSC will hire more than 3,000 employees, only 35 of whom will be health professionals.
“People who suffer from mental illness are people who desperately need other forms of help, but unfortunately the police have nowhere else to put them,” said Holland. “They wait for the negative interaction with the community, or for them to break a law, and then they use prisons as a repository for the mentally ill because they have nowhere else to put them.”
“The problem is particularly severe for mentally ill female prisoners, large majorities of which have suffered sexual or physical abuse,” said Sapers.
Two-thirds of incarcerated women suffer a substance-related abuse or disorder, and one-third have been psychiatrically hospitalized in the past. Ottawa-based lawyer Michelle Mann, who specializes in native and women’s issues, commented on the need to prioritize “corrections” instead of incarceration.
“Building more prisons, building more beds, and increasing capacity will not help. That isolation will hurt because you are just going to have more people incarcerated,” she said. “Ultimately we need to find more alternatives to incarceration, more use of community corrections rather than incarceration, particularly for nonviolent offenders.”
For Piché, the problem with Canada’s justice system is both practical and ideological: “What we’re seeing is a government that is more concerned with punishing people than helping them reintegrate into society in ways that would be beneficial to the communities where they return.”
The office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews could not be reached for comment.