Commentary  Being tough on crime is regressive

Rumblings of a May election are growing and the Conservatives are still trying to sell themselves to Canadians as defenders of public safety, investing almost forty percent of their legislative agenda and billions of dollars in crime legislation.

When marking his fifth anniversary in power on January 23, Harper emphasized the Tories’ “tough on crime” agenda, congratulating his party for keeping the “bad guys out of circulation for a while,” and maintaining that the money spent on crime prevention has been “worth it.”

Right now the government is running the largest budgetary deficit in Canadian history. But, while other departments are being frozen or cut, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is rapidly expanding its facilities to accommodate not only prisoners, but also the number of staff who will work in them. According to Parliament’s budget watchdog Kevin Page, the Truth and Sentencing Act – just one of the many Conservative crime bills – will cost at least $5 billion dollars more over the next five years than the Conservatives initially projected.

To handle increasing inmate populations, the CSC will hire more than 3,000 employees, only 35 of whom will be health care professionals, according to an internal report obtained by Postmedia news. This is despite the fact that it is estimated that at least a quarter of new admissions to federal prisons have some form of mental health illness.

Prisons are effectively being used as dumping grounds: a lack of existing community services for mental illness and drug abuse leaves imprisonment as the option most often employed by law enforcement, when in fact prisons have no capacity to treat such health issues. This leads to the incarceration of people who are convicted of behaviours that we have unjustifiably criminalized, often conflating underlying health issues with crime and creating a situation in which mentally ill individuals are overrepresented in prisons.

Canada’s prisons are already dangerously overcrowded with an influx of inmates who have mental health or drug abuse problems. This situation will only worsen with tougher sentencing legislation. Within the federal prison system there is already too little access to treatment centres, and an extreme over-reliance on punitive measures to deal with inmates who are mentally ill.

We need to invest in programs that end cycles of violence, addiction, and untreated mental illness. Without proper access to such programs, recidivism rates rise, and people leave the system with more acute mental health issues than when they entered. A “tough on crime” strategy wastes billions of dollars that could be invested in rehabilitation programs. In isolation, it will only serve to make our communities more dangerous. Building more prisons is not the way to address the complex root causes of crime. This is an extremely misguided strategy considering that there has never been a study directly linking more prisons with lower crime rates.

Harper thinks we should keep the people who commit crimes out of society. The thing is, many of these “bad guys” need more than a cell to break the cycles of violence. Further, this “bad guy-good guy” dichotomy misses the point: many people commit crimes due to factors largely outside their control – like poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness. They need programs, treatment, and opportunities for rehabilitation and redirection, but none of these are offered by Harper’s multi-billion-dollar plans to punish.