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For many people who commit crimes, and their families and loved ones, their sentence is only the beginning of their problems. As other posts have described, people being released from the system, whether on parole or probation or at the end of a sentence, typically face big problems in trying to resume a normal life, and often the system makes these problems worse.

As an example, at a recent (April, 2019) United Way of Toronto and York event, Songs of the City, one of the stories was told by a woman whose husband, after being paroled, was prevented from seeing or even talking on the phone with their children although he had been able to talk to them and visit with them while in jail! When one of the children attempted suicide and the father went to the hospital to see what had happened, he was arrested and jailed for violating his conditions – but once that happened his children could again talk with and visit him!

New study

A recent study by a team of Canadian researchers has documented some of the challenges faced by released prisoners by interviewing 60 former prisoners in Vancouver and Toronto. The participants had been released either from federal prisons or provincial jails.

The key conclusion of the study was that the majority of our participants experienced reentry into nowhere and with nothing.” That is, people released from jail received no assistance in finding housing, or employment, or reconnecting with families, or in dealing with substance abuse issues – even though those are exactly the steps that do most to prevent people from re-engaging in crime.

Where people did get support, they mostly found it themselves. In fact, the system often created obstacles to effective re-entry because of its focus on surveillance and the exact enforcement of rules, as in the story mentioned earlier. The researchers conclude that: Reentry processes are penal in ways that are distinct from custody and are suggestive of a continuation of punishment in the community.” Moreover, having a criminal record makes all of these tasks quite a bit harder. The idea that people with a criminal sentence ‘do their time’ and are then free is quite misleading; in many ways a criminal sentence never ends.

A better option

The researchers make the argument that this approach is both wasteful and dangerous. It makes life harder for many people, including entirely innocent people such as the families of those convicted of a crime. It is more likely to reduce community safety than to increase it. It would actually be far cheaper, and more effective, to use resources to help people make a successful reentry to the community instead of using those resources for locking people up.

One very important step would be if planning for release began while people were still in custody.  Steps such as finding housing or obtaining documents like drivers’ licenses and health cards can be done before release. Yet the study notes that such planning rarely occurs, even for people who have spent many years being locked up. The lack of attention to these issues is not new, and has been pointed out many times before. Just recently, an important service provided by John Howard Ontario to people being released from one of the main city jails was forced to move into a trailer because it could not afford to renew its lease.

The failure to help people return to the community after a criminal sentence is just one of the ways in which Canadians end up spending lots of public money in the criminal justice system while making things worse for everyone.


Gillian Balfour, Kelly Hannah-Moffat and Sarah Turnbull. Planning for precarity? Experiencing the carceral continuum of imprisonment and reentry. Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 77, 3148.  doi:10.1108/S1059-433720180000077002