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The new head of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has been given a huge mandate for change in that organization, which operates Canada’s federal prisons and parole service. Whether that change can be delivered under existing conditions is uncertain.
Anne Kelly, a long-time staff person in the federal correctional system, was recently appointed Commissioner of the Service, which is equivalent to a deputy minister role in most federal government departments. In CSC the Commissioner, under the direction of the Minister (who is currently Ralph Goodale), is responsible for managing the system and for developing and recommending changes in policy to the government. Senior civil servants in the federal government serve ‘at the pleasure of’ the Prime Minister, which means they can be moved or replaced at any time. In practice, deputy ministers are often moved to different jobs but are rarely terminated, which seems reasonable given that most of them have already had long and successful careers.
The new mandate
Just recently Minister Goodale took the very unusual step of releasing the mandate letter he had given to Commissioner Kelly on her appointment. This may have been done to show good intentions given that since the 2015 election very few of the commitments the Liberals made to improve criminal justice have actually been done.
The mandate letter calls on Ms Kelly to make quite a few significant changes. Among those mentioned are:
– to improve programs and service for Indigenous people, who continue to be hugely over-represented among federal prisoners;
– to make similar improvements for people in the system who are women, Black, LGBTQ2, seniors, or physically disabled;
– to diversify CSC’s staff and management;
– to improve and diversify rehabilitative programs, including more research on their value and effectiveness;
– to improve services for people with mental health issues (a high proportion of federal prisoners);
– to reduce rates of infectious disease;
– to improve treatment of those with addictions, which should be seen primarily as a medical problem;
– to improve nutrition;
– to continue to reduce the use of segregation;
– to improve education, including more access to post-secondary education and meaningful vocational qualifications;
– to improve prisoners’ ability to communicate with and have visits from family and friends.
The mandate letter also calls for improvements in parole, for building a workplace that is harassment free, and for encouraging a culture of self-reflection in CSC.
Will it happen?
These are all laudable goals. If CSC were able to implement most of them even to some degree, Canada’s prisons would be very different places from what they are today.
Unfortunately, it is hard to be confident that these goals will be met to any reasonable degree, for a few reasons. First, there are probably too many goals. It’s very difficult for an organization to focus on more than a very few things at one time.
Second, resources may be lacking. CSC was subject to very large budget cuts under the previous government, most of which affected the very programs and services that are now on the priority list. So there will need to be either a significant amount of new money, or a very large shift in the way resources are used within the system. The latter could happen if the government took steps to reduce significantly the number of people in federal prison by, for example, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and returning parole to what it used to be. However there is little sign so far of either of these things happening.
Resources, while vital, are not the only thing that matters. For many years under the Conservatives, and even under the Liberals before that, those convicted of crimes were portrayed in an extremely negative way, despite the fact that most of them will never commit a second crime. The whole system became more punitive. Much of the positive impulse among those who work in the system was lost and worsened conditions made labour relations more difficult. The government cut back the very useful research enterprise within the system – perhaps because the research findings did not support the government’s policies on crime and justice.
Budgets can be restored, but lost trust and confidence among those in the system is much harder to rebuild, while changing the mindset to be more positive and rehabilitative is an even bigger challenge. Creating an organization that makes effective use of research evidence is also hard to do. Various reports of the Correctional Investigator, mentioned in earlier posts, reinforce these challenges.
Just about everyone who studies or works in the area of criminal justice will wish Ms. Kelly well in her new challenge. To the extent these goals are met, Canada’s prison and parole system will be better, more efficient, and less expensive – because fewer people will be in prison in the first place.