900 words; 4 minutes to read
Audio summary by volunteer Averi Brailey
Since 1976, when capital punishment was abolished in Canada, everyone convicted of murder automatically gets a life sentence. Most Canadians would be surprised to know that punishment for those convicted of murder is considerably harsher today than it was when this law was created.
That is the conclusion of new research from Debra Parkes, Jane Sprott and Isabel Grant. Their study looked at time served in prison for people convicted of 2nd degree murder.
As important background, two points that many Canadians don’t realize. First, everyone convicted of murder gets a life sentence, and ‘A life sentence means just that. Even if an individual is released from prison on parole, they will be under supervision, and subject to re-incarceration for the remainder of their lives.’ Second, eligibility for parole does not mean that a person will be paroled at that point. In fact, data from the Public Safety Canada shows that the great majority of all prisoners are not paroled at their first eligibility date, and about 60% of all prisoners are never paroled at all.
More time in jail despite Supreme Court ruling
About 25% of people serving federal criminal sentences – nearly 5,000 people – are serving murder convictions. That percentage has been rising steadily for several decades even as the murder rate in Canada has been falling steadily over the same period.
When capital punishment was abolished, the minimum period in prison before being able even to apply for parole was set in law at 10 years (it is 25 years for first degree murder). In 1995 the Supreme Court of Canada said in a ruling that 10 years should be the normal sentence in such cases. But that is not the case at all.
Looking at several thousand cases over many years, the researchers found that ‘people sentenced for second degree murder are receiving longer periods of parole ineligibility from judges, and are spending longer in prison beyond that which could be accounted for by the increased parole ineligibility.’
In 1976, the average time in custody for this crime was 14.6 years. By 1999, that had nearly doubled, to more than 28 years, and was higher than most other countries in the world.
Longer sentences and less parole
The study found a ‘dramatic decrease’ in the number of people being sentenced to the minimum of 10 years before being able to apply for parole. In the years from 1976 to 1988, 51% got the minimum eligibility period, but by 2020, 80% were sentenced to more than the minimum.
The same is true for actual parole release. The proportion paroled within a year of their official eligibility has fallen from around 42% (even then, most people were not being paroled close to their eligibility date) to 14% more recently. In other words, hardly anyone in this group gets parole near their first eligibility. Indeed, nearly 70% are now waiting at least 4 years after eligibility to be paroled – keeping in mind that time to that first eligibility has also got much longer.
‘The reality that parole is vastly underutilized, generally, has prompted Doob, Webster and Manson to argue that Canada has a system of “zombie parole”, a nearly-dead process that does not meet its objectives of promoting public safety through timely and supported reintegration into the community.’ The idea, often reinforced in the media, that everyone is getting out quickly on parole is clearly wrong.
The double whammy
The net effect of this double whammy is people spending many, many more years in prison. In the 1990s about a third served 10-12 years, whereas in recent years only 8% serve that little time, and more than 75% spend more than 15 years in prison.
The situation is no better or even worse for Indigenous and Black persons. Indigenous people did not receive longer eligibility periods than others when sentenced, but Black people did. On the other hand, both Indigenous and Black people served more years before being granted parole than did others with similar offences. Three quarters (76%) of Indigenous people ended up serving over 15 years compared to less than 60% of non-Indigenous people. So, despite getting shorter eligibility periods in their sentence, Indigenous prisoners spend more years in jail than others.
Longer times in jail contradicted by success on parole
People are spending more time in prison even as the success rate of people on parole for murder is more than 99%. In fact, the success rate – meaning no further criminal convictions of any kind – for people on parole for murder is higher than for any other group in the system. (Equally surprising to most people, those with sex offence convictions also have a low reoffending rate on parole.) So there is no reason to keep people in jail longer except vengeance – which supposedly is not an element in sentencing in Canada.
‘Our finding that people convicted of murder are serving longer before parole is alarming because it runs counter to what we know about the success of these individuals on parole… The public safety rationale for detaining those convicted of murder longer is simply not there.’
Extra costs, no benefits
Keeping people in prison for many extra years does nothing to improve public safety, but it is hugely costly. It costs about $125,000 to keep a man in prison for a year; twice as much for women. It appears that in Canada there are several hundred people who could safely be out on parole, in which case the Canadian public could be saving hundreds of millions of dollars. And people could be rebuilding their lives instead of spending time in cells.