By Justin Piché
To be presented to the Rotary Club of Kemptville (Ontario)
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
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Thank you for inviting me again to speak to the Rotary Club of Kemptville. I always appreciate the opportunity to share my work with groups such as yours who contribute so much to building our communities.
The last time I spoke to your group in December 2008, we explored how the current penal system is ill-equipped to meet the needs of those most impacted by conflict and harm in our society: victims, 'offenders' and community members. When I asked you "what is justice?", you didn't respond "getting tough on crime" or other slogans we commonly hear coming out of the mouths of our politicians, both on the left and right.
For those impacted by 'crime', justice is not about a contest between lawyers, judges and juries determining innocence and guilt, and punishing those deemed culpable. You stated that justice is about having one's truth acknowledged, one's voice being heard, about individuals being accountable for their actions and what takes place in their communities, about meaningful compensation and safe reintegration for all involved, and about building neighbourhoods, not tearing them apart.
I am here today to share with you some preliminary findings from my doctoral dissertation entitled (Un)mapping Prison Expansion in Canada. This study examines the scope of and factors shaping prison expansion across Canada at this time.
In the last few months, some of the figures concerning the economic costs of prison expansion have drawn the attention of the news media and federal politicians. Some have even argued that "It has become fashionable among the commentariat to say Canada doesn't need to spend more money on law enforcement and prison construction because crime rates are falling" (read Flanigan, 15 April 2010). Whether or not this is actually the case is a discussion we can save for another day. What I am concerned about is statements made by those, such as Tom Flanigan, who acknowledge that increasing our reliance on imprisonment "costs a lot of money. But so what if it costs more to keep a criminal in prison for a year than it does to maintain a soldier in the Canadian Forces or a student at university?"
In the minutes ahead, I will present data on some of the costs of our current approach to 'crime' and punishment. I will then explore the implications of increasing our reliance on imprisonment and encourage you to look beyond your pocketbooks to consider other reasons why we should encourage our federal politicians to abandon the so-called tough on crime agenda.
Origins of Canada's Prison Crisis
You're in your kitchen. You've plugged the sink so the water doesn't run down the drain. You turn on the tap. The sink begins to fill. Eventually, the water reaches the top of the sink and is about to spill-over onto your kitchen floor - a huge mess in the making. Clearly, it's in your interest to prevent this pending crisis in your home. Do you pull the plug to allow some of the water to run down the drain? Do you turn off the tap to cut off the water supply? Or, do you run to your local hardware store to buy a bigger sink?
Prior to the 2006 federal election, prison systems across Canada were in crisis. In our provincial-territorial prisons where we typically house those awaiting trial or who are serving sentences of two years minus a day, the vast majority of cells, often the size of our washrooms, were occupied with one, two, or sometimes even three or four prisoners.
In our federal prisons where we typically house those serving sentences of two years plus a day, the rate of double-bunking has been approximately between 6 and 11 percent in the last decade. This continues to be an operationally reality in our federal penitentiaries despite the existence of Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) Commissioner's Directive 550 which states that "Single occupancy accommodation is the most desirable and correctionally appropriate method of housing offenders" and the fact that Canada is a signatory to the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which strongly discourages this practice.
It is also widely recognized by experts, those working in prisons and politicians that penal institutions have become dumping grounds for those suffering from drug addiction and mental illness, women who prostitute themselves on our streets in order to survive, as well as the poor who cannot afford bail prior to adjudication or adequate representation to avoid prosecution, being found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. Many of the facilities where we house prisoners were and continue to be decrepit and dilapidated to a point that they are places unfit for animals, let alone human beings.
Faced with this situation, prison officials have argued that new prisons (or new sinks) are required not only for the reasons stated above, but also because they claim that current facilities are inconducive to meeting their institutional programming objectives. And while many jurisdictions were in the midst of planning to replace or retrofit some of their old prisons, our already over-burdened penal infrastructure was about to incur additional pressure.
In the wake of highly publicized shootings in the summer of 2005, a moral panic where disparate events were presented to us as being indicative of a larger trend ensued. It is in the wake of the so-called summer of the gun that 'crime' re-emerged as a central topic of discussion in politics during the 2006 federal election campaign. During this time, it became fashionable for federal politicians of all stripes to tout their 'tough on crime' credentials for electoral gain. To not do so would be tantamount to revealing oneself as being 'soft on crime', a label thought to be synonymous with death at the polls. As a result, many sentencing laws which restrict a prisoner's ability to be released into the community and / or proscribe longer prison sentences have been passed without any evidence that such measures will enhance safety in our communities.
With our prisons already full, we have embarked on a path of overflowing old prisons that officials intended to replace and to build new prisons to absorb the influx of new prisoners resulting from federal legislation. The path taken is not one to public safety but one that will lead to cuts in other social expenditures, higher taxes or both.
The Economic Costs of Prison Expansion
At the provincial-territorial level, there are currently 22 new prisons and 11 additions to existing facilities at various stages of completion being established.
Should these facilities all come online I have calculated that they will augment the capacity of provincial-territorial prisons by at least 5,958 beds. Based on 2007-2008 data compiled by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, I have estimated that approximately another $315 million will need to be spent annually to cover the costs of these new beds for prisoners once they become occupied.
In addition to the annual structural deficit associated with the warehousing of prisoners, the figures I have compiled show that, to date, approximately $2.865 billion has been earmarked for the construction of these institutions.
In the last few years, the federal penitentiary system has also undergone an expansion. From 2005-2006, the last year the Liberals table a federal budget, to this fiscal year, the expenditures of CSC have ballooned from $1.597 billion to $2.46 billion, a 54 percent increase. In 2012-2013, CSC's budget is projected to be $3.128 billion, up 95.9 percent since the Conservatives entered office.
A significant portion of CSC's increasing budget is being allocated towards capital expenditures, which include facility construction cost. To date, the organization's capital expenditures have gone from $138.2 million in 2005-2006 to $329.4 million in 2010-2011, up 138.4 percent. In 2012-2013, capital expenditures are to rise to $466.9 million, up 237.8 percent since 2005-2006.
Unfortunately, all of my attempts to obtain records on specific federal prison construction projects under the Access to Information Act have been stonewalled. As a result, I have only been able to obtain a list of contingency plans outlined in a document obtained through Access to Information by a colleague titled "CSC Capacity to Handle Overcrowding". This document lists "Increased double bunking", increased use of Exchange of Service Agreements with their provincial-territorial partners, "Rental of trailers", "Conversion of units", "Construction of new units", "Use of specialized cells (e.g. using cells that are identified as part of CSC's physical capacity but for one reason or another are not included as rated capacity - e.g. closed beds, admin segregation, etc.), "Use of gyms as dorms", "Spring structure", "Voluntary [and] involuntary transfers", and other options being considered or implemented by CSC to deal with overcrowding.
CSC staffing levels have also risen from 14,663 full-time equivalent employees in 2005-2006 to 16,587 in 2010-2011, an increase of 13.1 percent. While the Government of Canada is planning to make cuts to dozens of federal agencies in the coming years (see Globe and Mail, 2010), it is projected that by 2012-2013 there will be 20,079 full-time staff working in the federal penitentiary system, a 41.2 percent increase since the arrival of this Conservative federal government.
But I'm an academic. Don't let me fool you with these figures and statistics. After all, they're based on numbers produced by and obtained from governments across the country.
A Price You're Willing to Pay?
The prison construction initiatives and rise in prison expenditure above have taken place in the context of an overall decline in police-reported 'crime' since 1991 (see Statistics Canada, 2008), as well as an overall decrease in the severity of police-reported between 1998 and 2008 (see Statistics Canada, 2009).
These statistics do have their flaws. For instance, they do not capture unreported 'crime'. According to figures compiled from the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), 34 percent of 'criminal' incidents were reported to police, a 3 percent decrease from 1999 (see Statistics Canada, 2005). Some of the reasons cited were:
- "the victim dealt with the violent incident in another way" (66 percent);
- "the victim felt that the incident was not important enough" (53 percent);
- "they didn't want the police to get involved" (42 percent);
- "they felt it was a personal matter" (39 percent);
- "they didn't think the police could do anything about it" (29 percent);
- "the victim felt that the police wouldn't help" (13 percent); and
- "the victim did not report because they feared retaliation by the offender" (11 percent).
Another critique of using the decline of police-reported 'crime' rate statistics to argue against prison expansion has been advanced by Tom Flanigan, former political advisor of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, who rightly observes that, despite their drop in recent decades, 'crime' rates remain higher than in 1962 when Statistics Canada began to compile these figures (read here).
In lieu of these two observations, the members of the Conservative Government and their allies argue that we need more prisons, which they claim will reduce 'crime'. The 'logic' being that by incapacitating 'offenders' they will at least not pose a threat to our communities while imprisoned. However, in taking this stance they fail to provide any evidence to substantiate their position. Why? Because they can't find any.
In 2000, Canada incarcerated 116 per 100,000 residents in comparison to the United States who imprisoned 709 per 100,000 residents (see Christie, 2000). If the Conservative Government's theory about incapacitation was correct, Canada, by virtue of incarcerating less prisoners per capita, would be less safe than the United States, a country which incarcerates more prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world. However, 2000 figures show that Canada had significantly lower rates of violent 'crimes' such as homicide (rate: 1.8 CND vs. 5.5 U.S.), aggravated assault (rate: 143 CND vs. 324 U.S.) and robbery (rate: 88 CND vs. 145 U.S.) than in the United States (see Statistics Canada, 2001). And while we had slightly higher rates of break and enters (rate: 954 CDN vs. 728 U.S.), as well as motor vehicle theft (rate: 521 CDN vs. 414 U.S.), these are not the types of 'crimes' most consider to pose a severe danger to society.
Beyond this comparison, the most important argument to be made against the notion that incapacitation of individuals enhances public safety is made by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada. During his 25 May 2009 testimony before the Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights, Sapers noted the following:
My Office is concerned with the impact that a rapid influx of new admissions to federal custody will have on an already burdened correctional system. In my 2007/08 Annual Report, I noted that prison overcrowding has negative impacts on the system's ability to provide humane, safe and secure custody. It is well documented that overcrowding in prison can lead to increased levels of tensions and violence, and can jeopardize the safety of staff, inmates and visitors.
As witnessed in the early 1990s when correctional populations dramatically increased, timely and comprehensive access to offender programs, treatment and meaningful employment opportunities measurably diminished resulting in delays of safe reintegration into the community further exacerbating both overcrowding and cost pressures. It bears noting that the pervasive effects of prison overcrowding reach far beyond the provision of a comfortable living environment for federal inmates; stretching the system beyond its capacity to move offenders through their correctional plans in a timely fashion has negative impacts on the protection of society itself as offenders are incarcerated for a greater proportion of their sentence only to be released in the community ill prepared and then supervised for shorter periods of time.
As it stands now, offenders have to contend with long waiting lists for programs; canceled programs because of insufficient funding or lack of trained facilitators; delayed conditional release because of this lack of capacity to provide timely programs means offenders cannot complete their correctional plans; and more time served behind walls without correctional benefit. This situation is becoming critical as more and more offenders are released later in their sentences, too often having not received the necessary programs and treatment to increase their chance of success in the community.
What Sapers' warning above tells us is that by passing legislation that will precipitate an increase in the federal prison population we will in effect be creating a situation where prisoners will have less access to programs and resources, which in the long-term will likely contribute to recidivism and decrease safety in our communities. Given that the vast majority of the incarcerated will one day return among us and the fact that our prisons are overcrowded as it is, the argument that incapacitating additional individuals for longer periods of time will enhance public safety is short-sighted and dishonest.
In a context of budgetary deficits and fiscal austerity, this approach which does little to address 'crime' in our communities is extremely costly. Beyond the figures I have presented to you today, consider how your tax dollars are being invested in individuals. According to 2007-2008 data compiled by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, it costs an average of $56,100.50 to house a provincial-territorial prisoner and $108,974.40 per year to house a federal prisoner.
Knowing what we do about the failures of imprisonment, is it reasonable to say "But so what if it costs more to keep a criminal in prison for a year than it does to maintain a soldier in the Canadian Forces or a student at university?".
So what if it costs $1,825 to $9,125 to supervise a prisoner of the state in the community per year with better results?
So what if for every $1 spent on preventing conflict and harm in our communities we save $7 we would need to spend on incarceration after a 'crime' has taken place (see Waller, 2006)?
So what if out of the $70 billion in costs resulting for 'crime' in Canada in 2003, $47 billion (or 67 percent) were incurred by victims themselves while our approach to justice focusses on the adjudication of innocence or guilt and the punishment of the culpable in a way that largely excludes their voices (see slide 56 - Justice Canada, 2005)?
So what if our federal government diverts piles of money into a failed approach to addressing complex conflicts and harms in our communities while providing crumbs to victims (see 6 April 2010 post 1)?
So what if the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime is on record as saying that the Government of Canada should take the money it's spending on expanding our prisons towards helping victims of 'crime' (see 6 April 2010 post 2)?
So what if imprisonment causes economic and emotional hardship to families who lose not only a son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father, but also in most cases a wage earner who contributes to their household when an 'offender' is sent to prison (see Hannem, 2009)?
Indeed, so what?
A Penal Minimalist Approach
For me, the evidence of the failure of imprisonment and the collateral consequences is too much to ignore. It is this evidence that has led me to change the perspective I had on penal policy when I enrolled in Criminology at the University in Ottawa some ten years ago in what I thought would lead me to become a prosecution lawyer who would "put the bad guys behind bars".
Rather than contributing to the Canadian prison crisis by increasing our reliance on imprisonment, I believe it is time to implement policies that position imprisonment as a mechanism of last resort.
This would involve putting into place a moratorium on prison construction, prohibiting double-bunking, not passing legislation that leads to the expansion of our prison population and examining existing laws to see where we can safely scale-back sentence lengths. This assessment of the Criminal Code of Canada could also examine the possibility of decriminalizing many offenses related to the use and trafficking of illicit drugs, as well as prostitution which have proven to be dealt with more effectively by being regulated within the health sector using a harm reduction approach.
The funds saved from reducing our reliance on criminalization and incarceration could be reinvested in addressing the root causes of 'crime' such as inadequate education, a lack of gainful employment, the availability of affordable housing and social services, and the dearth of bonds between members of our communities.
The path we choose is not simply a question of public safety. It is a reflection of our morals. Russian philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky (1860) once argued that "the standard of a nation's civilization can be judged by opening the doors of its prisons". Former British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill (1910), once remarked that "the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country".
If Doestoevsky or Churchill were to take a walk into our penal institutions to examine their conditions or turn-on the television today to hear the tenor of the debate on penal policy, one would not be foolish to assume that they would give our nation a failing grade for its current levels of civility.
And so what?
Imprisonment will never impact you, your family or friends directly.
The truth of the matter is that if we continue to march down the road of mass imprisonment, at some point, you will be directly impacted. In the United States, where we heard much of the same rhetoric from politicians who passed one 'law and order' piece of legislation after another while dismissing their critiques as being 'soft on crime', they went from approximately 200 prisoners per 100,000 residents in the early 1980s to 754 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2008. That same year, 1 in 131 Americans found themselves in jail or prison (see Sentencing Project, 2010).
If we tolerate this, not only will your children have to pay for it out of their pockets, they will be next (Manic Street Preachers, 1998).