1. “Punishment”-Motivated Laws

In an omnibus crime bill in 2008, CANADA’s federal government changed how dangerous offenders are classified and sentenced. The amendment removed some of the judge’s discretion and made it easier for courts to designate dangerous offenders after they have been convicted of three or more indictable offences. An indeterminate sentence, which does not give a specific release date, is the most severe of three sentencing options for the court.

[A British Columbia Supreme Court judge recently ruled that the legislation violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in that it may capture offenders who are, in fact, not truly dangerous but who are, instead, unwell and who, with treatment, pose a limited risk to the public.”:]

In 2011, the Tories removed the “faint hope” clause that allowed lifers to apply to a jury after 15 years for the right to an early parole hearing.

In 2012, our government fast-tracked debate regarding Bill C-10: Safe Streets and Communities Act. Among other things, mandatory minimum sentences were imposed for child sex offences and drug trafficking, and pardons were ended for serious violent and repeat offenders. Why—unless you don’t believe in rehabilitation—end pardons?

The Canadian government recently enacted a law sanctioning consecutive, rather than concurrent sentences. Applying this law an Ontario court imposed an unprecedented minimum 30-year prison term for two counts of 2nd-degree murder: 
In March 2015, our government announced plans to make violent repeat criminals wait longer to achieve “statutory release,” and (Bill C-53) to end the possibility of parole for some convicted killers.

[On May 31, 2015, our Government announced that it would be a “challenge” to pass either of those laws before the Commons close on June 23. The demise of these bills will mean a retreat from, as one law professor stated, “the increasing vengefulness of current criminal justice policy.”]

2. Negative Impact of Changes

Correctional Service of Canada’s watchdog Howard Sapers—his contract recently not renewed by the Feds—has said that, as predicted, that these various pieces of legislation have led to the need for more prisons; the incarceration of people for minor, non-violent offences; and poorer prison conditions including over-crowding, fewer “pro-social programs, and a higher incidence of “administrative” solitary confinement (in reality, isolation of indeterminate duration.)]

In his 2014 Annual Report, Sapers said,

“Use of force interventions, inmate fights and assaults, offender grievances and segregation placements are all trending upward in recent years. Key indicators against which safe and humane custody may be measured show there is more crowding, more disease and more violence in federal institutions.

Prisons that are filled beyond their rated cell capacities are at higher risk of jeopardizing safety and security of the person. Unnatural or preventable deaths in custody (suicides, homicides, overdoses) are perhaps the most visible failing, but too many other lives either are cut short by premature death or are marked by injury.
An increasing proportion of the offender population is spending more of their sentence behind bars before first release…”

My personal experience echoes those sentiments.

When I developed pen-pal and “visitor” relationships with a number of prisoners, CSC treated me like an alien: On the one hand, to every appearance I was engaged in “pro-social” behaviour—behaviour aimed at assisting in the reintegration process. On the other hand, it was clear they believed I had some kind of ulterior motive.

I was once put on notice that I was writing to too many inmates; on another occasion, that I couldn’t be on more than one inmate’s visitor’s list, etc. When I threatened to go public, CSC backed down….

How many other families and loved ones would have the gumption to do likewise?
One small ray of light: Though I assumed CSC would reject my offer to donate my book to every federal correctional institution in Canada, they said that I may. As far as I know, my book is now in every library.


Sadly, our PM keeps beating the same drum: If we don’t lock up offenders and throw away the key, we are complicit in making our society unsafe. In support of that fear-based thinking, he manufactures policy-based evidence instead of promulgating evidence-based policy.

The fact is that crime rates have been falling for a decade; prison spending is increasing by $5 billion annually; and six prison farms, considered by some to be Canada’s most effective rehabilitation programs, where inmates produced food for themselves and other prisons, have been closed. Observers say that this will result in inmates being hardened, instead of healed.]

3. Are the changes making our country safer?

Not according to Vancouver South Liberal candidate Harjit Sajjan, former VPD detective and military officer (Bosnia and Afghanistan):

Based on the insight I gained in the military and in law enforcement, I truly believe that the unique, open and diverse society we have built in Canada is a strength we have in dealing with future threats. By focusing our government’s efforts on fear, suspicion and finger pointing, as has been the case recently, we risk wasting Canada’s greatest strength — its people, and in the process we put our nation’s security at further risk:  @theprovince

Motivation behind “War on Crime” initiative

Our PM, by hyper-focusing exclusively on the rights and interests of the “victim”, plays into what Dan Gardner has called the “science and politics of fear.”
In his excellent book, Risk (2008, Virgin), Gardner writes that humanity has never had it so good. Most people around the world are better off and will live longer than their ancestors.

But instead of being relaxed, we are scared that bad things will happen to us: nuclear war, cancer, child abduction.

Our brain anatomy, Gardner says, was fixed millennia ago—such that we are not equipped to process the complexity of modern living, especially where risk is concerned. We hear about a terrorist attack; we see the gruesome consequences on TV and, before we can calculate the probability that we personally will be blown up, our brains have reacted as if we are being charged by a rhino: no time to think! Run!
If you think you don’t believe everything you see on TV, he says, it doesn’t matter. Your Stone Age brain has processed the images and is using them to shape your opinions whether you like it or not.

“It could have been me” is a common response to news of a disaster, although usually the mathematical probability of it actually having been you is infinitesimal. FEAR SELLS.
The only solution, Gardner says, is to think more, think harder—The primitive part of our brains might be open to seduction by alarmist politicians, but, given enough time, the rational part can step in and stop us from going all the way.
Alas, if only re-programming were that easy…

5. Shifting the Narrative: The “Right on Crime” movement

Ironically, even the most right-wing of USA politicians are leaving Canada’s thinking on this subject in the dust.

Republicans turn against “Tough on Crime” policy: How ironic: First, America’s Republicans spawn Harper’s “tough on crime” policy; now, they eschew it:  @globeandmail

According to Texas Republican Representative Jerry Madden,

It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build them, I guarantee you they will come. They’ll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there.
Texas and California, among other jurisdictions who had started down the same “punishment” road down which our government is leading us, are now—realizing it cost too much and made their justice system worse—reversing direction.

In an article entitled “The Conservative Case for Reform,” dozens of high-ranking Republicans including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich write as follows:

Too often the lens of accountability regarding government services has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government. As such, Corrections spending is now the second fastest growing area of state budgets—trailing only Medicaid.
Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending…. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders—making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered….

An ideal criminal justice system works to reform amenable offenders who will return to society…

Because incentives affect human behavior, policies for both offenders and the Corrections system must align incentives with our goals of public safety, victim restitution and satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness, thereby moving from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results.

Viewed in the light of a system that “rewards results”, what sense does it make to remove the “faint hope” clause? Lock up low-risk offenders? Increase the time virtually every offender must spend behind bars?

From an economic perspective, does it make sense to deny forever the opportunity–not the reality—of parole to those convicted of certain first-degree murder offences? This despite Correctional watchdog Howard Sapers’ statement that 99 per cent of offenders released on day parole or full parole last year did so without reoffending.

Since the abolishment of capital punishment in 1976, the murder rate in Canada has been cut in half. Also:

—Canada has 1115 (first-degree murder) offenders sentenced to life, minimum 25 years. 203 have been paroled;
—Average cost to keep a man in Maximum security is $148,000 v. $35,000 on parole;
—40 years in jail would cost nearly $6 million for one person in Maximum security; $6 billion for 1,000; and
—In recent years, the website of CSC has described those serving life sentences as “The most likely to succeed on parole.”

The authors of “Right on Crime” point to the need to take a principled approach to public safety. As they wrote, “Our security, prosperity, and freedom depend on it.”

Who would have thought that our Republican friends south of the border could offer their neighbours north of the ’49—neighbours historically smug about our supposedly “superior” criminal justice system—such invaluable insights?

As Gerry Ayotte, a wonderful prison chaplain, once said to me, “Let he who has ears hear.” Let’s hope that we Canadians do just that.

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