Is the Conservative government in Ottawa downloading the social costs of misguided crime and justice policies onto local governments? That’s the intriguing question posed by a prominent critic of Tory tough-on-crime tactics. In the political context, downloading typically refers to the practice of a provincial or territorial government dumping responsibility and costs onto municipalities for services that were provided by the upper tier of government. Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, believes local governments across the country face an onerous download that most likely don’t see coming.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The rate at which Canada imprisons its citizens has increased for the fourth year in a row, a reflection, says a Kingston expert, of a crisis involving people in provincial detention facilities.
“The remand crisis is out of control,” said Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, based in Kingston.
Canada’s incarceration rate climbed by 1% over the previous year, according to a new study by Statistics Canada.
On a typical day, there were more than 39,300 inmates in Canada, including youth in detention and adults in provincial and federal facilities.
Canada has an incarceration rate of 118 people per 100,000 population, six times less than the U. S. but nearly double the rate of some European countries.
“That rate is driven by the remand situation,” said Jones.
Many provinces, including Ontario, have a backlog of people, primarily those awaiting trials, who are stuffed into overcrowded remand facilities.
At the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, the nearest remand facility to Kingston, inmates sometimes sleep four to a cell.
The number of adults in remand last year was up 4% over the previous year, according to Statistics Canada, continuing a trend that began in the mid 1990s.
There were more adults in remand last year, 13,500, than adults serving sentences in provincial jails, roughly 10,000. The number of adults in remand has doubled over the past decade.
There are roughly 13,300 federal prisoners.
All of the provinces and territories contributed to the remand growth except Prince Edward Island and Quebec.
The tough-on-crime policies of the Harper government, particularly a plan to end two-for-one pretrial credit, are expected to swell Canada’s jails and prisons.
It’s predicted that the incarceration rate will grow by more than 10% in the next five to 10 years.
The Conservative government claims that the remand crisis is the result of people accused of crimes delaying their cases so they can rack up more remand time that will be credited at the rate of two for one.
The government is abolishing the two-for-one option now in the hands of judges, claiming that will lead more people to plead guilty faster and move into the federal system.
Legal experts, including criminal defence lawyers and criminologists, doubt the steps will end the crisis. They warn that trials may get longer, more complex and lead to more constitutional challenges. The Ontario government has failed, over the past several years, to ease a backlog in provincial courts.
Conservative ministers have acknowledged that more people will spend more time in prison as a result of the measures being pushed through.
They have not cited any evidence that the increased use of incarceration will enhance public safety or help rehabilitate criminals.
Jones wonders if the opposite result isn’t more likely, given how little Ottawa spends on treatment and counselling for imprisoned convicts.
“The people getting out, say, five, six years down are going to be in worse condition than when they went in,” Jones said. “That’s going to have a direct consequence for the quality of life in municipalities.”
The Correctional Service of Canada spends roughly 2% of its annual $2.2 billion budget on inmate programming.
Jones believes local governments must consider that they’ll have to pick up the pieces when hardened, institutionalized offenders go free.
“I don’t think we’ve had that discussion yet,” said Kingston Councillor Vicki Schmolka.
She said she’s concerned about how Kingston will be affected by Conservative policies that are bound to put more people behind bars for longer periods.
“What’s really scary is that we know that model doesn’t work,” she said.
Schmolka said the city must become more active in considering the issue, even though many people at the local level believe federal corrections and justice policies are “irrelevant.”
With seven federal prisons within a 20-km radius of City Hall, Kingston is a magnet for ex-offenders, whose families settle here to access social services and assistance provided by local groups.
“This is another instance of the federal government dropping its policy failures on the municipalities,” Jones said.