In the context of an economic crisis, the minority Conservative Government of Canada seems to have found their primary weapon of mass distraction - so-called 'public safety' laws.
5 of 13 government bills tabled in the Senate (38.5%) and 22 of the 55 government bills tabled in the House of Commons (40%) during the third session of the 40th Parliament of Canada involve some kind of 'reform' to sentencing provisions or the administration of the penal system (a.k.a. the 'criminal justice' system). Taken together, 27 of 68 government bills (39.7%) - or nearly 4 out of every 10 pieces of legislation - involve changes to the way 'cops, courts and corrections' function in this country (scroll below to view the legislation tracker).
A Prison for Almost Every Problem
For the time being, it seems that there is not a challenge we face that the federal government thinks could not be resolved by tabling legislation that will lead to an increase in the use of imprisonment.
You have an addiction - we have a prison for that.
You have a mental health issue - we have a prison for that.
You have arrived on the shores of Canada looking to escape conflict and persecution at home - we have a prison for that.
You took advantage of weak financial regulations and oversight to build a fortune on the backs of clients that trusted you - we have a prison for that.
You protested the prevailing economic order in which 10% of the world's richest control 85% of the wealth - we have a prison for that too.
Despite warnings from watchdogs (read 2009-2010 Annual Report of the OCI), senior prison officials (read 8 August 2010 post), guards (read 6 October 2010 Tibbetts and Stone article), prisoners (read 4 November 2010 CBC News article) and others who know full-well the dangers of increasing our reliance on incarceration and prison overcrowding, the federal Minister of Public Safety seems unconcerned. Emboldened by a vision of 'public safety' that offers little more than temporary incapacitation in the name of victims of 'crime' who are portrayed as having a unified voice in support of the government's carceral binge, we are on a path that will likely lead to more victimization in the future because when it comes to the reintegration of criminalized populations, this government has little to offer.
We know this, yet the drum beat persists and the tempo is picking up.
Some will say that where penal policy and practice is concerned that "the times they are a-changin", to use an expression included in the title of the April 2010 conference of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. While the trajectory of penal policy in Canada is one that is leading us towards a significant increase in the use of imprisonment as a response to the complex conflicts and harms in our communities that we call 'crime', our carceral future is hardly set in stone.
Building Community Capacity through
Justice Reinvestment and Transparent Democracy
I suggest that the tide can be changed, beginning with discussions that allow us to reimagine the meaning of ‘public safety’. For a number years this term has been coopted by the state and associated with 'cops, courts and corrections'. We need to reappropriate and redefine this term or we risk the continuation of a debate on the narrow terms of the penal system rather than engaging in a discussion about what it actually means to be safe – to have a job, to have a roof over our heads, to be able to afford to eat and pay our bills, to have access to health and mental health services, to be able to address the complex needs of those in conflict and so on. Ultimately, we need to free ourselves of the prisons, particularly those in our minds, that we choose to live inside that limit our conceptualization and response to the serious issues we face in our communities.
One way that my abstract proposal could be put into practice would be to develop a justice reinvestment strategy. Justice reinvestment involves an analysis of the total costs of policing, courts, imprisonment and community supervision by neighbourhood. From there, a portion of the total of these funding allotments are diverted from the penal system and reinvested in education, employment, health and mental health care, and social housing services, as well as other resources aimed at building community in an effort to prevent and address the social issues we call ‘crime’. Following implementation, results are analysed in an effort to inform on-going policy development and service delivery. Faced with growing budgetary constraints related to inflated prison budgets, jurisdictions such as Texas and Kansas have begun to implement justice reinvestment strategies to reduce their reliance on incarceration and address the underlying issues that contribute to ‘crime’.
Another way that my abstract proposal could be put into practice is to create a climate where transparency on penal policy matters is a cornerstone. Since the minority Conservative Government of Canada took office in 2006, the details regarding the implementation and costs of proposed punishment bills have been kept under wraps. As a result, federal parliamentarians have voted on legislation in the dark, and the provinces and territories who are left holding the bag have not had adequate time or the resources to prepare for the storm that lies ahead. The lack of transparency the federal government has engaged in on these matters should have no place in a democratic Canada.
'Shut the Fuck Up'?
With the future of our communities – both inside and outside – lying in the balance, there is a need for all Canadians to demand transparency and responsible policy decision-making from the Feds in order to change the trajectory of penality in this country. One option is to resist the punishment agenda of the minority Conservative Government of Canada. The other option is to “shut the fuck up” for fear of being labelled 'soft on crime' if you're a politician, having your federal funding pulled from you if you're part of an NGO that provides community supervision and reintegration services for prisoners, or because you're a citizen who could care less because it is "only criminals", after all, that will be impacted. However, the collateral consequences of the Canadian push towards mass incarceration - human, economic and political - are prooving to be disasterous. It's in times like these that silence is not an option.
* Selected excerpts from a 8 November 2010 presentation at the Annual General Meeting of the John Howard Society of Toronto.