The cost of prison

2010-05-17

in Canada, Economics, Law, Politics, Rants, Security

Apparently, imprisoning someone in Canada costs over $100,000 a year. Right off the bat, that is clearly a substantial investment of resources. It gets even worse when you consider a few further aspects.

Firstly, it seems highly dubious that prisons play a rehabilitative role. Those who are incarcerated will probably deal with a lengthy stigma afterward, perhaps for the rest of their lives. This will worsen their employment prospects and reduce the welfare of their family members. It is also plausible that having a record of incarceration increases the relative appeal of crime as a means of financial subsistence. Before you have such a record, you have a lot to lose from a criminal conviction; afterward, you have fewer legitimate job opportunities and less to lose from a longer record.

Secondly, it seems clear that the government could spend that sum of many in a great many more productive ways. You could probably finance someone’s entire undergraduate degree for that amount, or provide an apprenticeship program for a trade. You could do a lot of preventative medicine, or invest a fair bit in deploying improvements in energy efficiency or renewable energy generation.

It seems particularly absurd to imprison people with a non-violent involvement in the drug trade. It is a normal characteristic of human beings to want to experience altered states of consciousness. It is one that we positively encourage in some cases, such as the thrill from athletic exertion or Hollywood movies, and tolerate and regulate in others, such as with alcohol and tobacco. It seems utterly foolish to imprison those who seek to alter their mental state in unauthorized ways, or assist other people in doing so, when that choice is costly to everyone in terms of lost opportunities, and especially costly to the person being punished, in terms of future prospects.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah May 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Yup. It’s even more absurd when governments increase the tax burden on low-income people and cut welfare programs (thereby making crime more appealing and/or necessary for survival) at the same time as sending more people to prison. Studies have repeatedly shown that drug treatment is vastly more cost-effective than imprisonment, but alas few governments pay any attention to the evidence.

Milan May 17, 2010 at 10:04 pm
Pearl May 18, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Rolled into that cost is the facility for tutors, counseling, getting literacy, high school equivalency, job training or work within the prison in craft shops, kiosks, with laundry. Still, I agree, shunting the people who do not do violent crime and even those who do thru streams of funding for mental health and restorative justice would put society and individuals further ahead than prisons systems where the goal is holding still as punishment rather than equipping everyone to move forward.

Milan May 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Saying that the money spent on prisons isn’t wasted – because it pays the salaries of guards, etc – is an example of the broken window fallacy. It was brilliantly demolished in an 1850 essay by Frederic Bastiat, which I recommend to everyone.

In particular, have a look at section one: “The Broken Window.”

. June 22, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Federal prison bill to cost a billion dollars a year: Report

Joanna Smith
Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA—A central piece of the tough-on-crime agenda championed by the Conservative government is going to cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars a year to roll out, says a report from the parliamentary budget watchdog.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page released a scathing report Tuesday morning that examined the economic impact of implementing the Truth in Sentencing Act, which limits the amount of time inmates can get for time served while in custody awaiting a trial and verdict.

The report found the increased number of inmates the new legislation will deliver to federal correctional institutions — and the need to build new and bigger prisons to house them all — will cost an additional $618 million annually in operational and maintenance costs, and another $1.8 billion over five years in construction costs.

The report says changing the law will lengthen the average prison stay for an inmate by about 159 days, which would bring the total amount of time in physical custody from 563 days to just under two years.

Longer stays mean there will be an average of 17,058 inmates at any given time compared to an average head count of 13,304 inmates in fiscal 2007/2008, which is the year Page used as a baseline for his study.

. July 14, 2010 at 10:08 am

Ken Clarke says imprisonment not linked to crime fall

There is no link between rising levels of imprisonment and falling crime, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has said.

With crime having fallen in most of the Western world in the 1990s, he said the decline may have been due to economic growth and high employment levels.

Meanwhile, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Dame Anne Owers, warned that “overpopulated” prisons are “increasingly brittle”.

. July 28, 2010 at 11:55 am

“Muddle plays a large role. America imprisons people for technical violations of immigration laws, environmental standards and arcane business rules. So many federal rules carry criminal penalties that experts struggle to count them. Many are incomprehensible. Few are ever repealed, though the Supreme Court recently pared back a law against depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”, which prosecutors loved because they could use it against almost anyone. Still, they have plenty of other weapons. By counting each e-mail sent by a white-collar wrongdoer as a separate case of wire fraud, prosecutors can threaten him with a gargantuan sentence unless he confesses, or informs on his boss. The potential for injustice is obvious.

As a result American prisons are now packed not only with thugs and rapists but also with petty thieves, small-time drug dealers and criminals who, though scary when they were young and strong, are now too grey and arthritic to pose a threat. Some 200,000 inmates are over 50—roughly as many as there were prisoners of all ages in 1970. Prison is an excellent way to keep dangerous criminals off the streets, but the more people you lock up, the less dangerous each extra prisoner is likely to be. And since prison is expensive—$50,000 per inmate per year in California—the cost of imprisoning criminals often far exceeds the benefits, in terms of crimes averted.

Milan August 11, 2010 at 4:03 pm

The ‘War on Drugs’ is obviously one reason why American prisons are teeming, and a major injustice within American criminal law. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that zealous regulations are another source of dubious convicts:

“The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

There is even a man – George Norris – who was sentenced to 17 months in prison for selling orchids without proper paperwork.

. August 11, 2010 at 4:06 pm

“Severe drug laws have unintended consequences. Less than half of American cancer patients receive adequate painkillers, according to the American Pain Foundation, another pressure-group. One reason is that doctors are terrified of being accused of drug-trafficking if they over-prescribe. In 2004 William Hurwitz, a doctor specialising in the control of pain, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for prescribing pills that a few patients then resold on the black market. Virginia’s board of medicine ruled that he had acted in good faith, but he still served nearly four years.

Half the states have laws that lock up habitual offenders for life. In some states this applies only to violent criminals, but in others it applies even to petty ones. Some 3,700 people who committed neither violent nor serious crimes are serving life sentences under California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. In Alabama a petty thief called Jerald Sanders was given a life term for pinching a bicycle. Alabama’s judges are elected, as are those in 32 other states. This makes them mindful of public opinion: some appear in campaign advertisements waving guns and bragging about how tough they are.

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski.”

. April 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm

DON NOVEY does not look like a typical Californian entrepreneur. The grandfatherly, fedora-wearing conservative began his career as a correctional officer at Folsom State prison in the 1970s. But he helped build one of the Golden State’s largest industries.

Thirty years ago, when Mr Novey became president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), only 2,600 members walked what he calls “the toughest beat in the state”, and there were only 36,000 inmates in California’s prisons. Now, as Barry Krisberg of Berkeley Law School points out, some 170,000 people are locked up there, and CCPOA has 31,000 members. From the air California can look like an archipelago of prisons.

Mr Novey made CCPOA a dominant force in state politics, and not just by dishing out political contributions in Sacramento, the state capital. He shrewdly formed an “iron triangle” with Republican lawmakers and prison-builders. And he gave it a cause: tougher sentencing for criminals. CCPOA sponsored the “three strikes” law, mandating life imprisonment for three serious felonies, and helped set up victims’ rights groups.

By the time Mr Novey gave up the CCPOA’s presidency in 2002, the state had built 21 new prisons. Some guards now earn more than $100,000 a year (with overtime). Mr Novey negotiated pensions of up to 90% of salary, with retirement starting as early as 50. To many of his members Mr Novey remains a hero—a man who provided good jobs and made them safer. And the taxpayer footed the bill.

oleh April 5, 2011 at 1:36 am

I remember talking with a guard at the Pelican Bay State Pen in California about ten years ago. Pelican Bay was the prison where many of California’s most notorious prisoners were kept. It had a very high percentage in solitary in part because of expected violence towards each other.

I expect this guard was a fan of Dan Novey, the president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). This guard was proud of his job, the prison and the efforts to house these inmates. no doubt these would be at a very high cost.

California’ 3 strike law is reaping its costs. The prison population has soared – five times more than a generation ago. This has contributed to the debt of the state of California.

I think in Canada we have the benefit of seeing the costs of such programs south of the border, such as in California. I recommend a close look. The costs would definitely increase if there are more inmates; I expect there would not be an equal benefit.

. April 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Photos of a rare tour inside the Don Jail
Globe and Mail Update
Published Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2011 9:20PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2011 9:36PM EDT

Opened in 1864, the Don Jail was the largest jail in North America at the time. Soon to be closed in favour of a massive new jail, it serves as a remand centre for defendants awaiting trial.The Don is being renovated and preserved for its heritage but will be the administrative offices for the new Bridgepoint Hospital that is also under construction next door. To the east of the Don Jail is the current Toronto Jail that will also be torn down in the near future. Globe reporter Kirk Makin and photographer Peter Power gained extremely rare access inside both notorious jails.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/photos-of-a-rare-tour-inside-the-don-jail/article1992025/?from=1992057

Inside the Don Jail: One of Canada’s most harrowing prisons is about to close

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/inside-the-don-jail-one-of-canadas-most-harrowing-prisons-is-about-to-close/article1992057/

. April 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Compensating the innocent
Small price to pay
As the number of exonerees grows, so does the question of compensation

IN OCTOBER 2010 Anthony Graves was released from death row in Texas. He had spent nearly 20 years in prison, having been charged, in 1992, with helping another man murder a family of six. That man had sworn that Mr Graves was his accomplice, but later had a change of heart. “I lied on him in court,” he said just before he was executed in 2000. That sent the wheels of justice turning, albeit slowly and creakily. In 2006 a circuit court overturned the conviction. Prosecutors began to reassemble the case, and realised that without the false statement, there essentially was none. The district attorney filed a motion to dismiss the charges. On that basis an innocent man was finally exonerated.

This sad story raises a number of troubling issues. Among them is the fact that Mr Graves has been denied any compensation from the state for his long years in prison. Under the state’s 2009 Timothy Cole Compensation Act—an older law which was updated and renamed for another exoneree, who died in prison while serving 25 years for a rape that another inmate subsequently confessed to having committed—people who are wrongfully committed of crimes may collect $80,000 from the state for each year they were imprisoned.

. June 7, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Conservatives and criminal justice
Right and proper
With a record of being tough on crime, the political right can afford to start being clever about it

THE word commonly used to describe a politician who publicly announces he wants to send fewer criminals to prison is “loser”. But back in February there was David Williams, president of Kentucky’s Senate, speaking in favour of a bill that would do just that. The bill in question would steer non-violent offenders towards drug treatment rather than jail. It is projected to save $422m over the next decade, and will invest about half those savings in improving the state’s treatment, parole and probation programmes. Mr Williams, who believes Kentucky “incarcerates too many people at too great a cost,” praised the bill for recognising “the possibility for forgiveness and redemption and change in someone’s life”. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate 38-0, and on May 17th Mr Williams went on to win the Republican nomination for governor.

Mr Williams and his Republican colleagues join the swelling ranks of conservatives who have taken up the cause of sentencing and prison reform. In February Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, announced a bill to create a council to recommend changes in how his state sentences criminals. On May 11th Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, signed a law expanding alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. This follows similar measures in South Carolina and Texas, both of them conservative states with Republican governors.

Driving these reforms is a simple factor: cost. Over the past two decades, crime rates have fallen but prison populations have risen. More people have been jailed for more crimes—particularly non-violent drug-related crimes—and kept there longer. Pat Nolan, a former Republican legislator from California who served time in prison for racketeering and now works for Prison Fellowship, a prison ministry, laments that “we build jails for people we’re afraid of, and fill them with people we’re mad at.”

. July 20, 2011 at 9:33 am

City Opens New Art Jail

SAN FRANCISCO—City officials announced the opening of a new maximum-security art jail Tuesday, unveiling a modern detention facility designed to imprison a large population of high-profile paintings and sculptures.

The brightly lit four-story structure, located in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown, is sectioned off into 30 cell blocks, each confining nearly 1,000 pieces of art in small, sparse rooms where guards can keep a close eye on them at all times.

“Our goal was to create an institution capable of housing some of the world’s most sophisticated and renown artworks,” said art jail warden and distinguished Rembrandt scholar Dominique Paulson. “By keeping these masterpieces within our walls—whether temporarily or on a permanent basis—we hope to do a great service to our city and to society as a whole.”

. July 21, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Crime rate at lowest level since 1973: StatsCan

OTTAWA — Canada’s crime rate fell last year to its lowest level in nearly four decades, a statistic that opposition MPs held up as proof the governing Conservatives don’t need to spend billions on new jails.

Data released Thursday by Statistics Canada shows the crime rate continued a 20-year decline last year, dropping five per cent from 2009 and hitting the lowest level since 1973.

The homicide rate was the lowest since 1966.

The statistics agency said the overall police-reported crime rate is still following a long-term downward curve, despite the alarm bells from the Harper government over the need for tough-on-crime legislation.

The agency said an index which measures the severity of crime fell six per cent in 2010. The crime severity index is at its lowest point since 1998, the first year for which such data are available.

The Conservatives, though, still want to pursue a crime crackdown. In the past they have brushed off the police-reported crime rates, saying many crimes don’t get reported and thus undermine the statistics.

oleh July 22, 2011 at 10:59 am

The fall in crime rates is such a welcome and steady development .It is unfortunate that it is underreported in the media. I expect the media has grown used to the easy reporting of individual crime stories and cannot give up on this fodder.

One consequence of this continuous and excess attention to individual crime stories is that people believe that it is more prevalent than it is. They then live their lives with more concern for crime. An example is the reporting of the rare abduction of children leads to parents driving their children to school. This deprives the child of the various benefits of walking to school. Walking to school is an early builder of confidence and social skills. It also sets the child up for the day in school. The next step of taking a bike to school is also not as prevalent as it could be.

oleh July 23, 2011 at 6:08 am

The same day that I posted this entry The Province , the second most popular paper in Vancouver, reported the drop in homicide rate as its cover story. Am I that powerful? No, the story was printed before my entry.

. September 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm

America’s prisons

A catching sickness

A look at America’s sentencing system

A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. By Ernest Drucker. The New Press; 211 pages; $26.95.

IN MAY 1973 New York passed a set of laws that required judges to impose sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment for anyone convicted of selling two ounces (57 grams) or possessing four ounces of “narcotic drugs”—usually cocaine, heroin or marijuana. They came to be known as the Rockefeller laws, after New York’s then-governor, Nelson Rockefeller. They sent New York’s prison population soaring, from an average of fewer than 75 inmates per 100,000 New Yorkers between 1880 and 1970 to five times that rate by the end of the century. Between 1987 and 1997 drug cases accounted for 45% of new prisoners.

. September 27, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Under pressure to explain how much the bill would cost, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews estimated on April 28, 2010, that the legislation would cost taxpayers about $2-billion over five years. That was a large adjustment from comments he made earlier that month, when he said the cost would be ìnot more than $90-millionî over two years. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page later challenged those assessments, putting the estimate at about $1-billion a year.

. November 4, 2011 at 11:44 am
. November 6, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Provinces have ‘constitutional responsibilities’ to act on crime: Harper

By Mark Kennedy, Postmedia November 6, 2011

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his contentious anti-crime measures aren’t “terribly expensive” and provinces such as Ontario and Quebec that complain about having to foot the bill for the added costs to their prison systems should accept their “constitutional responsibilities” to help keep streets safe.

Harper made the comments in an interview broadcast Sunday on the debut of Global TV’s The West Block, a new political affairs show hosted by veteran journalist Tom Clark.

“There’s constitutional responsibilities of all governments to enforce laws and protect people,” said Harper.

“I think the people of Ontario and Quebec expect that their government will work with the federal government to make sure we have safe streets and safe communities.”

. November 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Prison costs going through the roof; Up 86% since Tories took over and likely to continue, report says

The cost of the federal prison system has risen 86 per cent since the Harper government took over in 2006, government reports show.

When the Conservatives came to power in 2005-06, Canada’s federal corrections system cost nearly $1.6 billion per year, but the projected cost for 2011-12 has increased to $2.98 billion per year.

“That is a humungous increase of over 80 per cent,” said Justin Piche, an assistant professor of sociology at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., who analyses the costs of Canada’s prisons.

“Canadians are going to be spending a lot more on their prisons, and this is just the beginning.”

Figures on the cost of Canada’s federal corrections system appear in the annual Reports on Plans and Priorities of the Correctional Service of Canada. By 2013-14, the cost of the federal penitentiary system will have almost doubled to $3.147 billion, according to budget projections.

. November 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Mandatory reading on mandatory minimum sentences

As Canada embraces mandatory minimum sentences for a multitude of offences, including growing as few as six marijuana plants (six months in prison), the United States Sentencing Commission has turned against that country’s obligatory penalties. “Excessively severe,” the commission says. It prefers sentencing guidelines that would allow judges some leeway.

It’s a message Canada should take to heart. Partly because of the frequent use of mandatory minimums, the size of the U.S. prison population has exploded. A mind-boggling one in every four people behind bars in the world is incarcerated in the United States. In 1985, there were 700,000 in jail; today, 2.3 million.

This is bad on many counts, but the one that has captured the attention of leading U.S. conservatives is cost. In Canada, the federal prison population rose by 1,000 to 14,500, in just 18 months, partly as a result of new mandatory minimums, a federal report found in August. At an average cost of $110,000 a year per inmate, the benefits would be questionable at any time – all the more so when economies nearly everywhere are at risk.

. November 19, 2011 at 9:05 am

Under new Conservative crime legislation, this 18-year-old man might never get the chance to reach his professional goals, legal specialists say. Instead, he’ll get a brutal two-year education in a federal penitentiary.

That’s because the young man occasionally does what many in his circle do — swaps small amounts of marijuana with friends.

As he’s walking down a neighbourhood street one night, a police officer spots him hand a couple of joints to a friend.

The two teenagers hadn’t thought about it, but they’re near a school — wherever they go in their urban neighbourhood they’re near a school. It’s night and the school’s closed but that’s no excuse.

The 18-year-old gives some lip to the officer who takes him to the police station and charges him with trafficking. His friend didn’t pay for the marijuana or give him anything in return. No matter. It’s still trafficking under the Criminal Code of Canada.

When the case eventually gets to court, the Crown prosecutor presents the evidence, which is irrefutable, and the judge has no choice but to sentence the 18-year-old to two years in a penitentiary. It’s the mandatory minimum sentence for someone caught trafficking “near” a school or “near” a place where children might gather.

The judge hates not having discretion to consider extenuating circumstances, but the government has given him no choice.

Anonymous December 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm

I think that the Conservatives’ prison strategy is undeniably flawed, but arguing against it solely on the basis of rehabilitation and societal cost misses part of the point of prisons: punishment. Yes, it appeals to the darker side of our being, but it would be foolish to view policy only through the lens of what humans should be instead of what they actually are in reality.

Whether rightly or wrongly, a proportion of people who are wronged want justice – and more specifically – vengeance. If I were asked what I would like done if my loved ones were raped and murdered, as Michael Dukakis was in 1988, I would like to say (although I may not say publicly and I certainly wouldn’t carry out) that I would like to have every bone in that guy’s body broken so that he would never walk or enjoy life ever again. That may not be justified for many reasons, but when you put political answers and ethics aside, that’s how many people would feel.

Prison isn’t the same as breaking every bone in a person’s body. It is an imperfect way to balance the desire for justice that victims may have with the inherent rights of citizens whether criminal or not. This is not to say that the Conservatives’ strategy is at all useful (targeting petty crime is misguided at best), but arguing that prisons are primarily a social rehabilitation service is also missing the mark.

oleh December 15, 2011 at 5:52 am

There is no question that the primary purpose of prison is punishment. I see room for prisonst for both general and specific deterance. t do not need more. I simply believe that our judges are better able to determine the lengths of those imprisonments without being imposed additional mandatory minimums.

. December 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Crime and punishment in Canada
Bang ’em up
Good politics, bad policy

THE crime rate in Canada fell last year to its lowest level since the early 1970s, and the murder rate is back where it was in the mid-1960s. Despite rises in some offences, such as those involving child pornography and drugs, the overall volume and severity of crime reported to the police has been falling steadily. Some politicians would celebrate, and move on to more pressing problems. Not Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister. Having made law and order a central plank of his campaign, his government is using the majority it won in May’s general election to enact an omnibus crime bill that bundles together nine pieces of legislation that did not make it through parliament during Mr Harper’s two preceding minority administrations.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act, which will probably be approved by the House of Commons this week, has been lambasted by its critics as a backwards step that puts punishment and retribution before the rehabilitation of prisoners. Foremost among the bill’s opponents is the provincial government in Quebec, which complains that the measure will undermine its successful efforts to keep young offenders out of jail. It also says that the cost of sending more people to jail for longer will fall disproportionately on the provinces, which share responsibility for prisons with the federal government.

Rob Nicholson, the federal justice minister, is unmoved. He said the government “unlike the opposition, does not use statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals”. He maintains that Canadians want the government to put their own safety and the rights of victims first. In part he is right. The ageing of the population has both lowered the rate of crime and also boosted fears about personal safety. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Canadians support the government’s crackdown on crime, although they would like to know the true cost. Mr Nicholson has failed to come up with an overall figure. Opponents claim that the final tally will be in the billions. They point out that federal spending on prisons has almost doubled since 2005-06, when the Conservatives came to power.

. February 14, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Largest U.S. Private-Prison Deal Defeated in Florida’s Senate

Feb. 14 (Bloomberg) — The Florida Senate today defeated a plan to move 14,500 inmates into private lockups, the second consecutive year that Republican leaders who support the measure came up short.

The two largest prison contractors in the U.S., Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America Inc. and Boca Raton, Florida-based Geo Group Inc., both expressed interest in bidding. The plan would have offered a contract as long as five years to run 27 prisons and work camps that Florida spends $268 million per year operating and maintaining. The companies operate six of the state’s seven privately run prisons.

Florida’s proposal was “the largest single contract procurement in the history of our industry,” Geo chief executive George Zoley said in an August conference call with investors. The Senate shot it down on a 21-19 vote.

As Florida and other states struggle with the aftermath of the 18-month recession that began in December 2007, the sale of assets and the shifting of traditional responsibilities to companies has increased. Since 2005, the number of state prisoners in private lockups nationwide increased 16.7 percent, while the total prison population increased 4.1 percent, according to U.S. Justice Department data.

. February 15, 2012 at 11:40 am

McMurtry, Greenspan & Doob: Harper’s incoherent crime policy

With all the talk about the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill, it would be easy to miss the real significance of the Prime Minister’s crime policy. The debate has focused largely on important but narrow issues such as whether people should be sentenced to a minimum of six or nine months in prison for growing six marijuana plants or whether we should stigmatize young people found guilty of minor assaults by publishing their names, and whether our laws should prohibit certain non-prison punishments for crimes such as break-and-enter.

The sum of the Harper crime policy is simultaneously less and more than the sum of its parts. The more fundamental issue that a crime policy should address is basic: How do we, as Canadians, want to respond to those who have committed crimes?

A starting point might be to consider a few simple truths about crime that need to be considered in a sensible overall crime policy.

* Many young Canadians commit relatively minor offences — drug possession, breaking-and-entering, shoplifting — that could see them imprisoned.

* As people get older, they become dramatically less likely to commit offences.

* In many cases, if someone avoids reoffending for five to 15 years, their odds of committing a crime again become the same as the segment of the population that has never offended.

* About 262,000 people are found guilty of criminal offences each year. Eighty-six thousand go to prison, at a cost of up to $117,000 per year per inmate.

* Compared to rehabilitation in the community, prison makes people more likely to reoffend (though, of course, in some instances, prison is the only option).

* One in seven Canadian males has a criminal record.

* There are known, effective ways to reduce crime. Changing criminal laws alone will have little if any impact on crime.

The Harper crime policy is less than the sum of its parts because it does not add up to a crime policy that addresses, or even acknowledges, these basic facts. It squanders resources that could be used to reduce crime. Making it more difficult for people to get out from under the shadow of their much earlier offences (through a pardon or “record suspension”) makes it harder for millions of Canadians with criminal records to reintegrate into society. Adding mandatory minimum penalties will do nothing to deter offenders, who, the data demonstrate, do not expect to get caught.

But the Harper crime policy is more than the sum of its parts because it tells us that the government is committed to ignoring evidence about crime, and does not care about whether our criminal-justice system is just and humane.

. July 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Tihar prison in India
More dovecote than jail
Prison rarely deters either rich or poor lawbreakers

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