Crime is almost always a reaction to socio-economic factors that plague certain groups more than others. Incarceration, or the ability of the state to punish those who violate our common sense of what is right and what is wrong, exists to sanction criminal activity. And of course, justice requires discipline for social deviance. However, rehabilitation, reduction of recidivism through education, and eventual reintegration are supposed to be the goals of incarceration through the implementation of appropriate sentencing principles. Retribution and punishment have been dwindling in importance and have been viewed as impotent measures through which to achieve the principles of sentencing, since Victorian England.
The financial toll of tough on crime policies.
Much has been made in the media about the considerable financial toll this legislation will place on Canadian taxpayers, already over burdened by financial recession and cuts to social spending:
Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, … [estimates] that the costs to run the federal and provincial jails, now at $4.4-billion a year, will rise to $9.5-billion by 2015-16. Sixty per cent of the extra costs, or $3.1-billion a year, would be borne by the provinces.
Despite how obviously fiscally irresponsible, the financial aspect of this legislation is just the tip of the iceberg. What concerns me more is the reality that over-incarceration doesn’t work; the more you lock people up, deprive them their liberty, put them into jail and force them to experience the horrific monotony of prison life and dehumanize them, the less likely they are to have been rehabilitated, to be remorseful of the act for which they were incarcerated, and to reintegrate into Canadian society upon their release.
The effects on Canada’s Aboriginal.
Further, it is widely acknowledged that poor and Aboriginal accused spend far more time in custody than their white, privileged counterparts. Those without access to good legal representation, or the ability to advocate for their rights, are more likely to plead guilty to an offence (often a result of intimidation by the judicial process, unavailability of resources and a lack of knowledge surrounding the justice system in general), which in turn leaves them with more entries on their criminal record, which is an important factor in deciding if one receives bail on any subsequent charges, and leads to their detention more often than those who plead not guilty. Thus Aboriginal and poor accused will spend more time in custody awaiting trial, due in part to socio-economic contributors outside their control, will not be credited with double time for that pre-trial custody, and will ultimately spend more time incarcerated than other classes of accused persons.
In Manitoba, 69 per cent of the prison population is aboriginal, compared with 12 per cent of the general population. (Similarly depressing numbers exist in Saskatchewan: 81 per cent of the inmates are aboriginal, compared with 11 per cent for the general population. In Alberta, it’s 35 per cent to 3 per cent and, in B.C., 21 per cent to 4 per cent.)
Aboriginals and other minority groups, of which poor Canadians are apart, are thus duly discriminated against by this legislation. First, they are more likely to be denied bail, and second, will not end up receiving the benefit of 2 for 1 pre-trial custody time credited against the sentence received.
Most Canadians agree that crime is bad: it tears apart lives, families and communities. However, fiscally reckless legislation, which does nothing to address the reasons for crime and wholly ignores the widely accepted reality that over-incarceration is a harmful, ineffective, socially burdensome and dehumanizing practise, is not the answer – especially when that legislation does not have uniform application. Further marginalizing Aboriginals and other poor Canadians through such discriminatory legislation is wholly unhelpful at any stage of the criminal justice process.
The projected $9.5 billion dollars would be far better spent on increasing social programs in poor communities and on reserves that target the reasons why crime is committed in the first place. Within jails, increasing the availability of counseling services and educational programs, focusing on rehabilitation and not retribution and punishment as the reason for incarceration, and giving inmates the opportunity to build their skill set would surely see eventual reintegration into society as a tangible goal and ultimately further the entire point of this legislation, which is the reduction of crime rates.
Anna Stuffco, B.A., J.D.
 Statistics Canada reports crime rates fell 3% in 2009, and 17% from 1999: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/100720/dq100720a-eng.htm. Editorials, “Truth in sentencing must come with truth in spending”, The Globe and Mail, updated September 25, 2010: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/truth-in-sentencing-must-come-with-truth-in-spending/article1613974/. Jeffery Simpson, “The true costs of ‘truth in sentencing’”, The Globe and Mail, September 26, 2010.