The National Parole Board is responsible for making decisions about parole for all Canadian federal prisoners (sentences of more than two years) and prisoners in many provinces. The Parole Board is made up of members appointed by the federal government; a list of members (though with no information about their background or qualifications) is online.
Each year the Parole Board, like other national agencies, produces an annual report, called a Performance Monitoring Report. This report provides a wealth of data not only about parole in Canada, but also about who is in prison and why. However the report is far from user friendly. It reports data but provides very little analysis of trends and rarely attempts to provide any commentary on what the data may mean. Nonetheless, a careful read of the Board’s 2014-15 report yields some very interesting facts that may be far from what the public believes.
Parole in Canada highly successful
A central finding of the report is that parole has a very high success rate, much better than the statutory alternative of releasing prisoners without parole at the 2/3 point of their sentence (called ‘statutory release’) or holding them until their full sentence is completed.
To give a sense of the numbers, at any given time in Canada about 9000 people are on ‘community supervision’ to complete their sentence. Between 85% and 91% of federal paroles are completed without any re-offending, and most of the re-offending that does occur involves violation of parole conditions that may have little to do with the person’s crime, such as violating a curfew or consuming alcohol when parole conditions prohibit it.
Despite the media focus on crimes committed by parolees, in 2014-15, not one person on parole in Canada, out of thousands, committed a violent offense. Women are granted parole at a higher rate and complete parole successfully even more often. The rates of re-offending are actually much higher for those not paroled and held until statutory release.
Success rates have been improving, too. Over the last twenty years, the proportion of those on full parole sent back to federal custody for a new crime has fallen from 15% to 1%. And the success lasts; the data show that even 10-15 years after the completion of a sentence, 75% of those paroled had not been convicted of any other crime.
Yet has been made more difficult to get
Yet despite this success, various policy changes by government have made parole both more difficult to get and more restrictive when granted. As a result, the proportion of prisoners being given parole has declined greatly over the last twenty years. In the early 1990s, about ¾ of prisoners were granted parole of some kind whereas in recent years only about half of federal prisoners get paroled. In 2014, about 60% of the prisoners held until their statutory release date never even had a parole hearing. The report attributes this to prisoners waiving their parole rights, but anecdotal evidence is that prisoners are often told or urged by parole officers in the prisons to waive their right to a hearing.
Also, when federal parole is granted, it happens later in the sentence. The law provides the possibility of day parole (which involves living in a designated halfway house) at 1/6 of sentence and full parole (which means living in one’s home or other approved place) at 1/3 of sentence. But the NPB data show that the average day parole was granted at 38% of sentence completion, more than double the legal minimum; for full parole it was 46%, much closer to half the sentence than to the legal requirement of 1/3.
There is relatively little granting of full parole in the first place; in the last few years about 90% of new parolees have been given day parole, not full parole. Of the 7867 people released from federal prison in 2014-15, 185 were released on full parole, 2017 on day parole, and 5336 on statutory release. This is also a substantial change from the situation ten or twenty years ago.
Parole from provincial jails is quite rare, though because some provinces administer their own parole systems, the exact numbers can’t be determined from this report. Part of the reason for less provincial parole is because provincial sentences are generally much shorter. However the report shows only 744 reviews across the country for provincial parole compared with more than 17,000 for federal prisoners. It appears that of all the thousands of prisoners serving sentences in provincial jails, only a few hundred are paroled each year.
Facts most people don’t know about parole in Canada
A few other interesting facts in the report:
– As is well known to experts, but not believed by much of the public, crime rates in Canada have dropped substantially over the last twenty years. The only areas of significantly increased federal sentencing in 2014-15 were child pornography, terrorism and extortion; the former two presumably because of more police attention.
– People convicted of murder have the highest rate of successful parole completion. However only about 20% of ‘lifers’ get parole on their first application – and that first application usually happens only after many years in jail.
– Aboriginal people are less likely to be granted parole, serve more of their sentence before being paroled, and are more likely to have their paroles revoked.
– Sex offenders of all kinds are have a very low rate of re-offending but are also the least likely group in prison to be granted parole. Ten to fifteen years after completing their sentence, only 3% of sex offenders had received another federal prison sentence, much lower than most other categories of criminals.
– While there has been much talk in recent years of more involvement of victims of crime, only 128 out of more than 17,000 parole hearings had victim presentations.
The National Parole Board also deals with what used to be called pardons and are now ‘administrative suspensions’ (pending long-promised changes from the current federal government). The number of these granted has dropped dramatically since the change in policy. Over the last 25 years nearly 500,000 people in Canada have received a pardon for a crime; fewer than 5% ever had that pardon revoked.
What these data seem to show is that Canada would do well to make parole more available, as it appears in the vast majority of cases to be more effective and is certainly much less expensive than keeping people in jail longer. Recent changes that made parole more difficult were counterproductive.