Post # 202
950 words; 4 minutes to read
Audio summary by volunteer Riley Mintz
In this post we reprint in its entirety a release issued by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in September. The release, now signed on the CCLA site by well over 100 groups and organizations, is a response to entirely misleading statements by politicians and the media – something that happens all too often. The open letter response got, of course, far less media attention than did the original statements. That is, sadly, all too often how criminal justice policy is made. Readers of the blog are invited to give this release the widest possible distribution. Unless the Canadian public has the facts we will continue to see law and policy made based on groundless suppositions as in this case.
Here is the CCLA release:
Experts’ Open Letter in Response to a Recent CBC Article
On September 15, 2022 a CBC article claimed that “experts” support handing out “longer jail sentences” in order to reduce crime and respond to “prolific offenders”. As experts in criminology, sociology, and law we feel it is our obligation to clearly and decisively reject this assertion. Decades of research from Canada and comparable jurisdictions like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia has shown that longer prison sentences do not reduce crime.
The following points, all supported by a wealth of peer-reviewed academic research, directly contradict explicit assertions and implicit assumptions in the article:
- Lengthy prison sentences do not deter individuals (specific deterrence) or others (general deterrence) from committing crimes. There is some evidence that certainty of capture and sanction may impact behaviour. A position paper from the federal Department of Justice summarizes the evidence nicely: severity of punishment – i.e., longer prison sentences – does not deter people from committing crimes.
- There is no reliable way to predict who will go on to commit crimes in general, or serious, violent acts in particular, in the future. On the contrary, research has shown that attempts to make such predictions are unreliable and discriminatory, especially against Indigenous peoples, Black people, other racialized communities, and women.
- Research shows that sending someone to prison – whether before trial or after sentencing – increases the likelihood that they will be charged with and convicted of a crime in the future. There are many reasons for this. Half of those sentenced to federal prison have histories of trauma and childhood abuse. Prison conditions are harsh, and people often leave with further physical and emotional scars that they are ill-equipped to deal with. Treatment for mental illness and problematic substance use behind bars is abysmal. Removing individuals from the broader community is intensely destabilizing and tears apart families and support networks, significantly increasing the risk that a legacy of trauma will be passed on to another generation.
- The suggestion that individuals need to be sentenced to longer prison terms to benefit from programming is false. Research consistently shows that programming is more effective if it is delivered while a person is in the community rather than behind bars. Community programming can also be provided at a fraction of the cost.
- Regardless of sentence length, there is no guarantee that people will be able to access appropriate, effective programming in custody. Programming is almost non-existent in many provincial jails. Even in federal institutions tailored programming is lacking, wait lists for the programs that do exist are long, and there are many barriers that prevent individuals from participating.
- Most people leaving prison have no further contact with the justice system. The people the public is most concerned about (typically those who committed violent crimes) are the least likely to reoffend. If an individual does come into contact with the criminal system again, it is likely to be for a minor, non-violent offence or a breach of a court order.
- Contrary to the assertion in the article, our criminal legal system does consider individuals’ criminal record during sentencing, taking into account not only the specific incident they were found guilty of but also their broader history and any patterns of behaviour when determining a fit sentence.
By the Canadian government’s own measures crime in Canada generally, and in British Columbia specifically, is at historic lows. Despite this, over the past few months there has been an ongoing public discussion in British Columbia about a perceived rise in crime and the role of the criminal justice system. The British Columbia Assistant Deputy Attorney General, in a detailed response to public concerns, called attention to the negative impact of “uninformed or inaccurate public statements.” It is ironic, and deeply concerning, that an article that quotes this very statement would then go on to propagate so-called “expert” information that is, quite simply, false.
In short, prisons and lengthy prison sentences do not prevent crime and are not the means to achieve community safety. Individuals experiencing poverty, mental illness, the criminalization of drug use, and/or homelessness are among the communities that are often subjected to the most intense scrutiny and surveillance by police, making them far more likely to be arrested. Most crime in Canada is related to property offences, administration of justice charges (such as not complying with a court order), and drug-related activity, all of which tend to be tied to structural factors which could be better addressed through other means. Increasing reliance on the criminal legal system and prisons to respond to the crises of inter-generational trauma, homelessness, substance use and the drug toxicity crisis, and the failure of our mental health system will only exacerbate the underlying problems.
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