Another year has passed and penal policy continues to be a central item of discussion on the federal political scene in Canada. In the midst of generalized uncertainty, with the prospect of another financial crash constantly hanging over our heads, the only thing that appears to be certain in 2012 is that the Conservatives will press forward with their costly punishment agenda as the axe of 'austerity' falls elsewhere. What will remain of what little is left of the social services that once defined this country by the end of the first Harper majority weighs on the minds of many.
Below, I briefly summarize how penal policy debates played a role in triggering the 2011 federal election on May 2nd and some of the developments that have transpired in the realm of punishment since that time. From there, I discuss the issues in this area that will likely receive attention in the year ahead and the need for optimism in a time of penal 'inevitability'.
Stories Followed by TPCP Canada in 2011
1) Fiduciary Responsibilities, Contempt
and the Dissolution of Parliament
In 2010, the lack of transparency of the minority Conservative Government of Canada concerning the costs of their punishment measures became an important topic of debate in federal politics. This was in large part due to the fact that the Conservatives refused to table the costs of many of their 'tough on crime' initiatives in Parliament while pieces of legislation were being debated under the guise of "Cabinet confidence". They even went as far as to stonewall the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) who was forced to develop a forecasting model without much of the necessary federal government data on the impacts of the Truth in Sentencing Act (2009) (read report).
While one or more of the opposition parties helped to pass many punishment bills tabled by the Conservatives since 2006, often without the relevant financial information they had requested, the Liberals decided that this and other examples where the government prevented parliamentarians from exercising their fiduciary responsibilities would be a hill they would live or die on. After successive attempts to obtain information on key government expenditures, including the costs of new punishment measures (read posts from 7 February 2011 and 16 March 2011), a House of Commons committee declared that the Conservatives were in contempt of Parliament (read 21 March 2011 post). From there, the Liberals tabled a non-confidence motion that passed, putting an end to the 40th Parliament of Canada (read 26 March 2011). The Conservative punishment agenda was now on hold while an election would determine the future configuration of federal politics.
2) A Majority Government for the Federal Conservatives
Given the place that penality occupied in the 39th and 40th parliaments, the 2011 federal election campaign was quieter on this front than one would expect. On one end of the spectrum, the Conservatives promised to re-introduce legislation that had not passed in the previous session of Parliament as a single omnibus bill (read 6 April 2011 post). On the other end of the spectrum, the NDP promised to take a more 'prevention'-oriented approach, which centred on the provision of more funding for hiring public police officers (read 11 April 2011 post). For their part, the Green Party proposed to end the prohibition of marijuana and direct more resources to deal with 'white collar crime' (read 8 April 2011 post), while the Bloc Québecois chastised "Stephen Harper's Canada" for its penchant for punishment "as downright disquieting and even dangerous" (read 13 April 2011 post).
While other parties took relatively clear positions on penal policy, the Liberals were considerably more timid in their approach. Given that a central talking point they advanced was "prisons and planes" versus "the real priorities of Canadians", the party led by Michael Ignatieff critiqued Conservative prison spending, yet did not articulate how they would approach penal policy differently to reduce such expenditures or why they had supported some punishment bills in previous parliaments in their platform (read 6 April 2011). While it is unknown how this lack of clarity affected their electoral prospects, the Liberals took a mighty hit at the polls, while the Conservatives won a majority mandate.
3) An Omnimess Bill
The new Conservative Government of Canada had an opportunity to shepherd a national conversation on how to prevent victimization where possible, as well as meet the needs of the victimized and criminalized in instances where it is not when Parliament resumed business on June 2nd (read 16 May 2011 post). However, this opportunity was squandered as they continued right where they left off by tabling a budget that included massive increases in the expenditures of the Correctional Service of Canada (read 21 June 2011 post).
Following the summer recess, the Conservatives tabled their omnimess legislation, Bill C-10: The Safe Streets and Communities Act, in the House of Commons. After nearly two months of committee hearings - with opposition members, experts and some victims' rights advocates urging the government to reject or make amendments to the bill, along with public policing officials and other victims' rights advocates urging the swift passage of the legislation - the omnimess was passed in the House of Commons in December. The bill will now be the focus of committee hearings in the Senate when they resume their business later this month.
4) The Emergence of Organized Campaigns
Opposed to the Conservative Punishment Agenda
In the 39th and 40th parliaments much of the opposition to the Conservative punishment agenda came from academics, advocates from organizations such as the John Howard Society of Canada and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and others who testified before committees in the House of Commons and Senate. When the 41st Parliament began these individuals and groups again raised their voices in opposition to efforts to increase the use of incarceration - experts who according to former Prime Minister Harper Chief of Staff Ian Brodie are "all held in lower repute than Conservative politicians... so we never really had to engage in the question of what evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime" (read 27 March 2009 article by John Geddes).
While the debate on penal policy remains polarized along familiar lines, new voices have emerged in this discussion such as the Smart Justice Network (SJN), which "is comprised of individuals and organizations concerned about current practices and trends within the Canadian criminal justice system" (follow SJN on Twitter). Among its activities, the SJN circulates regular media snapshots to those subscribed to its mailing list as a means to keep Canadians informed about the latest debates on the topic. Leadnow has also emerged as an important medium for mobilization against the Conservative punishment agenda, organizing online petitions, letter campaigns to MPs and Senators, as well as demonstrations across the country (read here). As the omnimess rolls on, it will be interesting to see if such campaigns remain as persistent as the current federal government is in its efforts or if the continued onslaught of penal policy measures will pacify this small, but growing resistance.
5) Some Provinces and Territories Wake-up
As I noted in a previous blog entry (read 22 September 2011 post) and op-ed (read 31 October 2011 article in The Hill Times), the provinces and territories have collectively earmarked billions of dollars for the construction of new prison spaces primarily as a means to cope with the growth in remand populations over the past number of decades. With few jurisdictions having reported to me that they incorporated projections related to federal penal policy measures into their prison construction plans, including the provisions contained in the omnimess bill, it was surprising that provincial-territorial governments had not raised questions about how the measures introduced by their counterparts in Ottawa - some of which they supported - would be paid for at a time where they will have to cut social services and / or raise taxes to balance the books.
Seemingly asleep at the switch for sometime, it appears as though many provinces and territories finally awoke to the reality that many of the costs resulting from the introduction of measures contained in Bill C-10, such as those related to new mandatory minimum sentences under two years in length and greater restrictions on the use of conditional sentences, would be borne by them. While the federal government is likely counting on a split between vehement opponents of the bill such as Québec and proponents of intensified punishment such as Saskatchewan to stymie the prospect of collective provincial-territorial resistance on this file, as demonstrated at the conclusion of the recent FPT meeting of justice and public safety ministers last week all jurisdictions have their hands out for Ottawa's cash (read 25 January 2012 article by Kim Mackrael). How these two levels of government work or do not work together on penal policy matters in the future will be a story to watch for in 2012.
Stories to Watch for in 2012
As the runaway Conservative punishment train races down the tracks in reverse while some clamour for them to go back to the future, here are five stories that I will be tracking in 2012.
1) PBO Report Estimating the
Costs of the Omnimess Bill
When Bill C-10 was first tabled in the fall, the Conservatives initially refused to attach a price tag to the piece of legislation (see, for instance, Seamus O'Regan's interview with Rob Nicholson on CTV). After being bludgeoned in the news media for a few weeks, the federal government stated that the bill would cost them $78.6 million over a period of five years (read 6 October 2011 article by Tobi Cohen). No estimate was provided concerning the costs of the bill to provincial-territorial treasuries.
Wanting an independent analysis of the costs of the omnimess, the opposition requested that the PBO study the bill. After months of being stonewalled by Public Safety Canada, the PBO again requested information from the agency (read letter dated 10 January 2012) and tabled a new request for information from Justice Canada (read letter dated 16 January 2012).
Given that it is likely that the PBO will again be forced to conduct an analysis of expenditures without relevant information from federal government departments, the Conservatives will likely suggest that Kevin Page and his team's figures will prove to be inaccurate. They will also continue to claim that federal prison population growth related to the Truth in Sentencing Act (2009) has been slower than even CSC had anticipated (read 26 January 2012 article by Jeff Davis) as a means to discredit PBO estimates.
While it does appear that PBO projections outlined in their June 2010 report will not materialize, it should be noted that the work of the office represents a kind of worst-case scenario whereby estimates were based on the assumption that rates of criminalized victimization and the reaction by the penal system would remain constant. Such analysis did not account for the moderating forces within the system that absorb change discussed by Doob and Webster (2006), nor could it. The strength in the analysis is that it highlights areas where, should adjustments not be made, impacts will be felt. Thus, future reports tabled by the PBO should be viewed for their usefulness in highlighting where changes in the way the system deals with criminalized victimization will likely need to occur to avoid the scenario where no adjustments are made.
Also left out in this narrative is that the federal government has never released documentation from CSC that sets-out what the expected flow of federal prisoners resulting from this measure, which to date is approximately 1,500, was projected to be at this stage to the PBO or anyone else to substantiate their claims. Moreover, the impact on the provinces and territories - who the feds claimed would have smaller prison populations once further restrictions were placed on credit for time served - has not been explored. With a paucity of information provided by the Conservatives, coupled with their efforts to sabotage attempts to conduct meaningful analysis on the costs of their punishment agenda, this story is definitely one to watch this year.
2) 'Austerity' Budget 2012,
A.K.A. from Welfare to Penal State?
CSC's budget has been increasing for sometime (read 20 July 2011 article by Dan Gardner). With that said the 86.7 percent increase from the $1.597 billion earmarked by the Liberals in 2005-2006 to the $2.982 billion earmarked by the Conservatives in 2011-2012 (read 21 June 2011 post) does represent a clear illustration of the intensification of punishment underway in Canada.
With expenditures for CSC and other 'security'-oriented departments likely to rise as the guillotine of 'austerity' drops elsewhere in Ottawa, a story to watch for in 2012 is whether Canada continues to move away from a welfare state, that is said to provide a social safety net for vulnerable members of our society, to a penal state, that effectively punishes those who fail to insulate themselves from the consequences of unemployment, disease, aging and the like as has been observed elsewhere (read Gilmore, 2007).
3) Whatever Happened to CSC's
Long-term Accommodation Strategy?
Another issue, which has been slowly developing for a number of years, is what has happened to CSC's long-term accommodation strategy in response to recommendations from a 2007 review panel that proposed the construction of new regional complexes to replace aging institutions said to be outmoded to meet 'modern' prison objectives. While the Conservatives have long claimed that the construction of new penitentiaries is not in the cards (read posts from 18 March 2010 and 19 March 2010), in favour of double-bunking prisoners in cells originally designated to warehouse one person as a temporary accommodation measure (read 11 August 2010 post) until new units being built on the grounds of existing penitentiaries come online (read 14 February 2011 post), Public Safety Minister Vic Toews noted in December 2010 that a such a plan would be submitted to Cabinet "for consideration in March 2011" (read 3 October 2011 post).
We are now in 2012 and there is still no word on the specifics concerning CSC's long-term accommodation strategy. Having obtained documentation that shows that the planning process for regional complexes had begun in 2008 (view documents here), I contacted CSC to find-out if any progress had been made on the file. In a 21 October 2011 email, an official from CSC Media Relations responded to my query noting the following:
"The Long-term Accommodation Strategy is subject to Cabinet confidence and any details cannot be discussed. CSC is continually assessing its long term requirements based on legislative proposals and cost containment measures. Any decisions regarding the long-term accommodation strategy will be announced as part of the normal budget cycles".
With the budget fast approaching, will 2012 be the year where Canadians learn more about CSC's long-term penal infrastructure plans? Stay tuned.
4) Prisons Under Duress
With the Correctional Investigator of Canada again warning the federal government about the risk prison overcrowding poses to the security of institutions and its impact on the availability of programming (read 2010-2011 Annual Report), 2012 will be a challenging year for staff working and prisoners living inside these institutions. Despite claims made by irresponsible ministers in government who maintain that arrangements such as double-bunking do not pose a threat to institutional security and are humane, experience inside tells another story (read 17 June 2011 article by David McKie). With the feds seemingly not phased by having blood on their hands, one can only hope that penitentiaries do not explode under their watch as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s when human rights and hope inside such facilities were next to non-existent.
At the provincial-territorial level, where triple-bunking in cells originally designed for one prisoner has been reported in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, circumstances inside prisons are also dire. As the Harper administration sticks to their plan to see their omnimess bill through, the National Union of Public and General Employees, which represents prison staff in a number of jurisdictions, has publicly denounced Bill C-10 and particularly its lack of provisions to address the mental health crisis inside penal institutions (read 26 January 2012 article by CBC News).
With prison staff expressing concerns about the safety in their workplaces and various voices continuing to demonstrate how increasing the use of imprisonment is a failed approach to enhancing community safety, perhaps 2012 will be the year where more Canadians draw the conclusion that the Conservative punishment agenda has nothing to do with our safety and everything to do with securing their electoral prospects.
5) Criminalization and Civil Death
While the push to increase the use of incarceration by the federal government is problematic for a number of reasons, perhaps the most worrisome aspect of their punishment agenda is their apparent desire for individuals to continue to be punished well-after the completion of their sentences. Further restricting access to and raising costs for pardons are just some of the changes that will work to create a larger permanent underclass of criminalized peoples in Canada.
At a time where the livelihoods of many are already in jeopardy or under threat, the 'criminal' is an easy target for scapegoating and tension release through the infliction of pain. As new measures are tabled by the Conservatives to disenfranchise and effectively ensure a bourgeoning supply of permanently criminalized peoples, many of whom will have little means to survive and may end up in prison as a result, Canadians will have to decide for themselves if communities without second chances where civil death is increasingly normalized are places in which they want to live (watch interview).
The Need for Continued Resistance and Hope
Until 2015, a federal government that is committed to expanding the use of criminalization and punishment as tools to address often complex conflicts and harms in the name of victims and 'law-abiding' citizens will be in place. For Prime Minister Harper and his team the wealth of evidence and experience that suggests their policies are destined to be costly, unjust and immoral failures appear to be minor inconveniences that are to be neutralized by repeating meaningless slogans in mind-numbing fashion.
For those who oppose the Conservative punishment agenda, the future appears to be grim and it is not uncommon to hear frequent utterances of the old adage "things often have to get worse before they get better" when discussing penal policy. Perhaps this is so and we will continue to witness many of the same follies seen in the United States, the world's largest prisoner recycling and disposal station, for many more years to come.
A legislative agenda dominated by new sentencing measures - check.
A brand of politicking that derides expertise that puts into question the desirability and viability of such measures - check.
Suggesting that 'crime' is a growing problem, ignoring statistics that suggest otherwise as new penal infrastructure is announced and more individuals enter prisons, and then taking credit for decreases in rates of police-reported 'crime' that were already decreasing well before an intensification in punishment occurred - check.
While I could go on, there is equal cause for optimism. As we enter a new age of 'austerity', it appears as though many are making the connections necessary to understand that increasing the use of imprisonment punishes us all in the form of less resources for health care, education, pensions and the like. Should this awareness be combined with more robust and generalized resistance perhaps future federal governments, no matter the political stripe, will engage the politics of victimization, criminalization, and punishment differently in manners that meet the human needs of affected parties via good policy, rather than sacrifice them at the alter of what is said to be good politics. Perhaps this hope is misplaced, but for me, as long as we have "another day" we have "another chance to get it right" (listen to Morning Yearning by Ben Harper).