No more second chances for offenders in Ontario

Posted on June 9, 2012 in Child & Family Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Jun 07 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Last year, approximately 75,000 prisoners were released into Ontario’s population. The number will climb when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s multi-part crime bill, approved in March, is fully implemented.

Approximately half of these newly released inmates will come out of jail with mental health or addiction problems. A third will be homeless. Many won’t know how to apply for welfare, cook for themselves, navigate the social service system, replace lost identity documents or manage their anger. Most won’t have the skills they need to get a job.

They’ll be strongly tempted to go back to the life they know: drug dealing, gun violence, robbery, child exploitation. Everyone who takes that path will cost taxpayers millions of dollars in shelter stays, hospital bills and serial incarcerations — not to mention the immeasurable cost to their victims.

Young offenders will move on to bigger crimes. Older ones will die in jail or on the streets.

Premier Dalton McGuinty didn’t think much about these consequences when he supported Harper’s lock-’em-up approach. Eager to prove his government was not “soft on crime,” he was a willing participant in the crackdown.

Now the province must pay the price:

 Its already overburdened courts will have to jam more criminal trials onto the docket. (Previously, Ontario diverted a large percentage of young offenders from its criminal justice system.)

 Its already crowded jails will have to accommodate an additional 1,500 inmates by 2016, according to the Ontario Ministry of Safety and Correctional Services. (McGuinty is calling on Ottawa to pay the $1 billion cost.)

 It will have to integrate more adolescents with criminal records into society. (This isn’t even on the premier’s radar screen.)

The John Howard Society of Ontario, however, has given it a lot of thought. The non-profit agency, which has been helping prisoners reintegrate into the community for 83 years, has just released a study entitled Effective, Just and Humane. Its principal point is that putting roofs over their heads — a challenge in itself — won’t be enough. They need non-discriminatory access to support services.

“Complex issues require sophisticated responses,” said Michelle Keast, director of the John Howard Society’s Centre of Research, Policy and Program Development. “Individuals reintegrating into our communities face all kinds of barriers.”

There is no bigger barrier than a criminal record. Ontarians who have spent time behind bars — regardless of the circumstances — have to fight or beg for social services and housing. They have few advocates other than the John Howard Society to guide them to the right doors, vouch for them when those doors are slammed in their faces and stay with them until they are back on their feet.

That explains the report’s first recommendation. The province should “invest in discharge planning and transitional housing” for individuals leaving Ontario’s prisons.

Its second suggestion is that the province review its policies and programs to make sure none bar an individual from receiving housing, services or employment counselling because of past involvement with the criminal justice system.

Its third request — echoed by advocates for the homeless, poor, new immigrants and people with disabilities — is that Ontario pull its confusing mishmash of social service agencies into a system that makes sense to users and the public.

None of these proposals is unreasonable or unaffordable. Moreover, it costs the province seven times as much to let a young offender cycle in and out of jail for life as it does to give him or her a second chance.

That should be a compelling argument. But in today’s climate of fiscal austerity and punitive justice, it would take a brave politician — braver than McGuinty — to say yes.

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