Tories’ tough-on-crime agenda means jammed jails stuffed with minority Canadians

Posted on November 28, 2013 in Child & Family Delivery System – Full Comment
28/11/13.   Kelly McParland

When the federal Conservatives launched their tough-on-crime program and matched it with a parallel boost in spending on Canada’s prisons, there were predictions the result would be a rapid expansion in the prison population, and a proliferation in the problems overcrowded jail cells produce.

This year’s annual report by Howard Sapers, Canada’s ombudsman for federal prisoners, indicates the predictions have been more than met.  Despite billions spent on a massive expansion of prisons, Canadians are being tossed in jail in such growing numbers that jails are becoming more crowded, more violent and less successful at rehabilitation,  says Sapers.

Sapers notes with particular concern the changing make-up of the prison population. While the number of white prisoners is falling slowly, the increase in native, black and other minorities is exploding. The numbers are alarming, no matter how little you sympathize with people who break the law.

Since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, the overall prison population has grown by 7%, to its highest level ever. Sapers reports the entire increase can be accounted for by rising numbers of Aboriginal, black, Asian and other visible minorities. On any given day, Sapers reports, 40% of Canada’s inmates come from non-white communities. Almost 10% are black, up 80% in the past decade, although just 3% of Canadians are black. Even more  noteworthy, an astonishing 23% of prisoners are Aboriginals, from a community that makes up just 4.3% of Canada’s population. One in three female prisoners is from Canada’s First Nations.

Conservatives look to fill new session of Parliament with ‘tough-on-crime’ agenda

If you thought the federal Conservatives had completed their “tough-on-crime” agenda by now, think again.

Justice policy plays to the party’s base of supporters, is hard for the opposition to attack, and ultimately tugs on the heartstrings of all Canadians who want to see victims helped and crimes prevented or punished.

What can we expect as Parliament resumes?

It’s impossible to digest numbers like that without concluding something is badly wrong with the system. Sapers said as much in a blunt speech delivered before the release of the report.

“You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these,” he told an audience at a Toronto church.

“These groups are over-represented in maximum security institutions and segregation placements. They are more likely to be subject to use of force interventions and incur a disproportionate number of institutional disciplinary charges. They are released later in their sentences and less likely to be granted day or full parole.”

Evidence of discrimination is common, he says. Blacks are presumed to be gang members and treated accordingly. The use of pepper spray, physical restraint and isolation are up. The growth in jailed Canadians appears to be driven by policy, not crime, he says, since the crime rate had been falling for years before the Tories took office.

The Conservative response to his findings was typically snide.

“The only minority I would say we are interested in are the criminals,” said Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.

Conservative MP Rick Norlock mocked Sapers’ report, which, he said “calls for private prisoner accommodations as if prisons were hotels and criticizes the use of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in prisons, as if encouraging criminals to read more were a bad thing.”

In fact, Canada’s prison guards say there is a direct link between double-bunking and increased violence. The union for Canadian correctional service officers says the growth of double-bunking has been matched by an increase in weapons, fights and threats against guards.  The reference to Huckleberry Finn referred to complaints that black prisoners were forced to read aloud from a book that refers to them repeatedly with the ‘N’ word.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay treated the report with similar disdain, insisting he would not apologize for  “standing up for victims rights.” But victims rights advocate Steve Sullivan — a former prisoner ombudsman — says incarcerating people has little to do with helping victims. “Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty will spend three times as much punishing offenders over five years as they have on victims’ rights in seven years,”he wrote this week.

The ministers continue to propose more crime legislation with sweeping new penalties. This week Mr. MacKay tabled a bill on cyber-bullying that (admirably) makes it illegal to transmit intimate images without the consent of the subject, but also proposes up to two years in jail for  pirating telecommunications signals without paying. Do Canadians really feel jail time is called for to deal with cable cheats? Just this month Ontario’s highest court threw out a law imposing a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a loaded prohibited gun, judging it “cruel and unusual punishment” for a first offence.

Mr. Harper knows that taking a tough stance on crime plays well with many Canadians, and especially among Conservative voters, no matter how bad conditions may get in jail. He received a standing ovation at the recent Conservative convention for pledging to ensure “a life sentence means a sentence for life.”

That’s fair enough: even before the Conservatives came to power, Liberal prime minister Paul Martin supported mandatory minimums for some gun crimes. And not all the news is bad: The Conservatives have doubled a “victim surcharge” prisoners must pay, and promised a victims’ “bill of rights”. Sapers notes that minority prisoners appear to do better once released: Over the past seven years fewer than 5%, on average, have returned to jail  within two years of their sentence expiring.

But there is more to dealing with crime than getting even with bad guys or warehousing lawbreakers where we can’t see them. Unless you believe that blacks and natives are predisposed by nature to committing crimes, the numbers indicate that something in their experience in this country is driving them towards lawbreaking. Putting more of them in jail shows no sign of remedying the problem, as their numbers just keep rising. Perhaps if we eventually jail the entire native population we’ll solve the problem, but that’s not a display of the compassion and humanity Canadians generally like to see in themselves. It has also failed miserably as a policy in the U.S., which is busy trying to reduce its hyper-expensive prison population.

More is required if we are going to move beyond simple mass incarceration, towards preventing future crime and remaking offenders into useful citizens. As Sapers argued:

“If we’re going to spend $2.6 billion running our federal correction system, I want to make sure our society is better for it, and one of the best ways I know of doing that is to ensure that people are prepared for release back into community and that they’re not embittered, they’re not mentally unwell and they are able to participate in society in a law abiding way.”

Those are intelligent words, but they won’t gain much currency in Ottawa as long as the government continues to treat the jails primarily as a handy way to cement support among its core constituency, with little regard for the effectiveness of of its policies or the rehabilitation of those who run afoul of their growing body of laws.

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