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On Nov 6, the Globe and Mail newspaper ran an editorial called “Fixing solitary isn’t enough.  Canada’s prisons need to be reformed top to bottom”.  The editorial argued that the recent focus on changes in solitary confinement (or segregation) will not be effective because “the broader question of getting Canada’s prison system back on its intended course – that is, rehabilitating convicted criminals and preparing them for their eventual and in most cases inevitable release – has not been addressed. The overuse of solitary confinement is, in fact, a symptom of a larger problem.” Citing extensively the work of the Correctional Investigator, the editorial argues that the extensive emphasis on punishment has actually worked against effective rehabilitation.  “…without a drastic reform [to prisons overall], the only alternative is to keep trying to limit the worst abuses, such as with solitary confinement, while leaving unchanged the structural problems that make our prison system a self-defeating relic of another era.”

A tough-on-crime approach that makes prison life harsh and deprives inmates of opportunities to rehabilitate does nothing to promote public safety. Canada needs to make its prisons safe, clean and healthy places. Treating inmates like humans, and offering them a chance learn on the inside how to be good citizens on the outside, is better for everybody.”

Debra Parkes on mandatory minimums for murder

The editorial should be seen in conjunction with several opinion pieces the paper published over the last couple of months that also criticize aspects of Canada’s criminal justice system.

On September 24, Debra Parkes, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, published a piece calling for an end to long mandatory minimum jail time in murder cases before someone can even apply for parole.  Currently a person convicted of murder must wait at least 10 years for second degree murder and 25 years for first degree murder before even applying for parole.  Moreover, parole is seldom granted to these prisoners on the first application, and often not for many years after if at all.  Parkes also points out that a life sentence is different from all others, since even those who are paroled will be supervised for the rest of their life and “can be returned to prison indefinitely for doing anything her parole officer considers related to her ‘crime cycle.’”

Much of the discussion around abolishing mandatory minimums has ignored life sentences, focusing on some of the newer mandatory minimums for less serious crimes.  However the mandatory minimums for life sentences have, as Parkes points out, a huge impact, assuming that “that every single person convicted of murder needs to be under correctional supervision for their natural life, when the evidence shows us otherwise. Most murders are committed by the relatively young, for whom the prospects of change and rehabilitation are great.”  In fact, desistance from crime with after age 30 is one of the strongest research findings in all of criminology.  Parkes also notes that paroled murderers are rarely – less than 1% – rearrested for any crime even though they may be on parole for decades.

Parkes advocates that Canada follow the lead of many other countries in sentencing for murder, which “allow for long sentences, including life, where necessary, but let the judge tailor the sanction to the crime and to the individual.”  Because current sanctions are so severe, “the law of homicide itself has been distorted… Juries tie themselves in knots to understand and apply defences such as intoxication and provocation that are specific to murder and have developed complex and arguably unprincipled rules.”  These severe sentences may also cause people to plead guilty to lesser charges even when innocent – as happened with several of the many cases mishandled by pathologist Charles Smith.  Parkes also notes that stiffer sentences do not deter crime but do impose high costs, both human and fiscal, and are applied more often to Indigenous people.

Lisa Kerr on solitary confinement legislation

In October, Lisa Kerr, a law professor at Queen’s University, wrote about potential problems with the federal government’s newly-tabled proposals around changes in the use of solitary confinement.  Her view was that the legislation could make a positive difference if implemented properly, but that it lacked some important safeguards.

On the positive side, prisoners would have more time out of their cells – a minimum of four hours a day, including an ‘opportunity to interact’ with others through various programs and services.  There would be more supervision and intervention by prison wardens.  And the number of prisoners in segregation has dropped very substantially in the last few years.

However prison staff would still have “vast discretion” given no time limits on time in solitary confinement, and no external oversight of the process.  This even though, in a key “recent B.C. Supreme Court opinion, Justice Peter Leask spent 54 paragraphs, or 14 pages, discussing the history of calls for independent oversight of solitary, and explaining why the prison culture needs a truly independent check.”  Without external oversight, the temptation to use this vehicle as a “first-line response for the challenges that prisons invariably face” would be very difficult if not impossible to control.

Kim Pate on Bill C83

On Nov. 12, Senator Kim Pate, a long-time advocate for improvements in criminal justice, also wrote about the federal government’s proposals around solitary confinement.  Unlike Kerr, she had nothing favourable to say about the proposals, writing that that the bill is “in reality, a cynical exercise that merely rebrands this cruel treatment”.  The proposed changes are unlikely to end the over-use of segregation for people with mental health issues, for women, and for some minority groups.  Given past performance, one can’t be confident that the prison service will actually implement these provisions as intended, either, especially given no external oversight.   In short, the legislation is inadequate for the intended purpose.

Senator Pate is also the sponsor of a bill in parliament (S-251) that calls for an end to mandatory minimum sentences.

Better public information needed

It’s good to see a national newspaper consistently publishing well-informed content on important criminal justice issues.  And it’s good to see experts such as Parkes, Kerr and Pate writing such pieces.  Still, these pieces feel like pebbles in a lake in comparison to the enormous, alarmist and often badly  misinformed coverage most media give to crime. (In fairness, the Globe does this less than many other outlets).  A considerable amount of research (to be discussed in a future post) shows how media coverage of crime leads people to hold entirely inaccurate ideas (some of these were mentioned in our very first post) about the prevalence and seriousness of crime and of various proposed measures to address crime, which in turn leads politicians to advocate ineffective and expensive policies such as harsher sentences.  There is still a great deal of work to do to provide a more informed and evidence-based picture of criminal justice in Canada.  We need those who know this field to weigh in more in the public debate, and the media to do more to share evidence instead of emotion.




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