The John Howard Society of Canada: “Where Does the Law And Order Agenda Take Us?”
January 13, 2011 – Ottawa, Canada
The past two years has seen the legislative agenda dominated by tough on crime bills. Currently, there are fifteen crime related bills before the Senate.
The government announced earlier this week the spending of $150-million to add 634 beds to existing penitentiaries in Quebec, the Prairies and Ontario. This is in addition to the previously announced $601-million to create 2,500 new beds. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, in a report released last year, estimated the need for new cells at 4,000 with an operating budget of $5-billion a year.
Ed McIsaac, Director of Policy for the John Howard Society of Canada stated: “although the government disputes the $5-billion price tag, there is no doubt that we are headed on a very expensive journey down a path that experience tells us will neither reduce our crime rate or make us safer.”
“The current crime related legislation, which claims to enhance public safety, diminishes judicial discretion through the provision of mandatory minimum sentences, creates a series of new offences, unreasonably limits access to pardons and reduces the Parole Board’s ability to provide timely consideration for conditional release. The end result of these measures will be a significant increase in the prison population and a decrease in community supervision and support for those released. Prisons are never the answer to enhanced public safety. Harsher sentences do not act as a deterrent nor do they reduce crime rates.”
So where are we headed?
A December 6, 2010 editorial in the New York Times: “The Crime of Punishment” stated: “Among experts there is a growing belief that less prison and more and better policing will reduce crime. There is almost unanimous condemnation of California-style mass incarceration, which as led to no reduction in serious crime and has turned many inmates into habitual criminals. America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure – the result of an expensive approach to criminal justice shaped by fear-driven ideology.”
The Guardian, in a December 7, 2010 lead article reported that justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, “wants to restore the discretion of judges when sentencing murderers and other serious offenders”. In a move to reverse nearly 20 years of punitive criminal justice culture, Clarke signalled that he “would sweep away aspects of the statutory sentencing framework in England and Wales that “unhelpfully fetters” the ability of judges to make the sentence fit the crime.” The article also reported on Clarke’s determination “to press ahead with proposals to reduce the current jail population by 3,000 in England and Wales.”
We can, if we are willing to look, see the future.
Crime prevention and safer communities are not achieved through limiting discretion and increasing prison populations. These goals are rather achieved through integrated systems which have both the flexibility and resources required to respond to individuals in a timely fashion. Our prisons are currently above capacity, with double and triple bunking a reality. The most vulnerable and marginalized within our society, Aboriginals and individuals with mental health concerns, continue to be significantly over represented in penitentiary populations. We as a society must be prepared to support effective early intervention strategies for youth at risk, a judicial process with the available options to ensure incarceration is in fact a last resort, a community mental health system that limits rather than increases our correctional population, a penitentiary service which addresses individual offender needs rather than acting as a human warehouse, and conditional release programs which support timely reintegration to our communities.
The financial cost of implementing an effective, integrated criminal justice-mental health system pales in comparison to the estimated billions to be spent on building new prisons.
We know, from both our own experience and decades of research, what works. Criminal justice legislation shaped by fear-driven ideology is not the answer. The fiscal and human costs of the path we are on are far too high! Do we have the collective will to do what is right?
Director of Policy, The John Howard Society of Canada