In the Spring 2011 election, the Conservative Party of Canada promised to be “tough on crime.” Having already introduced and passed a variety of legislation that increased prison time for a variety of offenses, the Conservatives promised to take things even further. They promised new measures that would crack down on human smuggling and contraband tobacco, lengthen sentences, and make it more difficult for inmates to be granted parole. The Conservative party knows that this, along with other “law and order” initiatives they have implemented over the past few years, means that the prison population will increase steadily in years to come.
Crowded Prisons = Increased Violence
The increase in the prison population is resulting in increased crowding. According to Ottawa’s prison watchdog, correctional investigator Howard Sapers, by 2014, close to one third of inmates will be sharing cells that are designed to accommodate only one person.
The increased crowding in prisons is leading to an increase in violence. “The indicators that we look at in terms of getting a measure of institutional violence are all going in the same direction,” Mr. Sapers told the Globe and Mail this week. “And they’re all going up.” Sapers noted that inmate injuries increased by more than 60 percent in the last year. John Winterdyk from Mount Royal University’s Centre for Criminology and Justice Research told the Globe and Mail that rates of violence and in-custody deaths have increased faster than the prison population over the past decade.
Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews brushed aside those concerns, telling the Globe and Mail that he hasn’t seen those statistics and that “There isn’t as much prisoner-on-prisoner violence that used to exist eight or nine years ago, before we put in policies that restricted some of the movement of prisoners.” Toews concluded by saying that “If you’re concerned about prisoners inside prisons, that’s fine: I’m concerned about them too. But my paramount concern is about violence against people out on the street who are innocent.”
Plans to Build More Prisons
In January, the Conservative government announced several prison expansion projects to accommodate increasing inmate populations and to help spark economic recovery through the creation of construction jobs. According to their plans, these projects would cost $158 million and create 634 new spaces. However, according to the Toronto Star, the parliamentary budget officer estimates that tougher sentences could cost between $10 billion and $18 billion over five years.
Does this Make Sense When Crime is Decreasing?
Canada’s crime rate is down 17% from 10 years ago and the crime severity index is down 22% from 10 years ago (source: Statistics Canada). But statistics don’t win elections; fear does. The increasingly gruesome and sensationalized media reporting on crimes combined with the fear mongering of the Conservative Party’s campaign may be more likely to sway votes than the reality portrayed through the statistics.
According to Statistics Canada, the Canadian incarceration rate is about 117 inmates per 100,000 people (compared to the United States rate of 760 per 100,000). The American incarceration rate, which is significantly higher than all other Western democracies, has quadrupled since the 1970s. Former Republican U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency head Asa Hutchison has warned Canada not to repeat his government’s mistakes. According to the Globe and Mail, Mr. Hutchison says the Republicans’ approach did not put enough emphasis on preparing convicts for release and that their mandatory minimum sentences often put people behind bars who did not need to be there.
The Alternative: Address the Roots of Crime
Experts on criminal justice agree that tougher sentences and bigger prisons are not the way to decrease crime rates. According to the Toronto Star article, Solving Crime? Tackle the root causes first, the steps that lead to safer communities are:
- Reduce poverty and school dropout rates.
- Invest in comprehensive childhood development initiatives.
- Make housing affordable.
- Increase access to health care and rehabilitative programs.
- Reduce incarceration rates, partly through alternatives to jail, and direct savings to neighborhoods with a high number of offenders.
According to the Toronto Star:
Attacking root causes doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if savings from reduced incarceration are reinvested in troubled neighbourhoods. With crime costing an estimated $70 billion annually, $1.8 billion of it for prisons, cost-benefit analyses have repeatedly shown such investments would save many more billions in the long run.
In the Spring 2011 election, most of Canada’s political parties had comprehensive platforms designed to address these issues in particular. The Conservatives, however, plan to use their majority government to simply put more people behind bars and give Canadians the perception that they are safer.
Photo credit: DubyDub2009 on flickr