One hundred and fifty concerned Kingston and area residents gathered at City Hall on Saturday March 16th for a vigorous town hall discussion on prison overcrowding and its consequences. We were informed by a panel of three experts on the issue: Catherine Latimer, (current John Howard Executive Director), Justin Piché (University of Ottawa Professor of Criminology and co-editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons) and Jason Godin (Ontario Regional President of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers), but most of the meeting was devoted to open discussion. Participants contributed a rich tapestry of facts, ideas and experiences, and then wove the consensus into a formal petition which Kingston and the Islands MP Ted Hsu will present and read out to the House of Commons on April 15th or 16th.
You can view the text of the resulting petition either by scrolling to the bottom of this page or by clicking here.
Watch highlights of the public forum:
It was clear from everything that was said that prison overcrowding threatens the long-term safety of our communities in addition to creating dangerous, high-stress workplaces for correctional staff while denying inmates the rehabilitation and mental health services which are essential if they are to come out less likely to reoffend after completing their sentences than when they first went into the system. We believe it wrong that policy changes which have such serious implications for our community, our safety, and the safety of our families have been imposed on us by the federal government without any modicum of democratic consultation.
Participants who queued up to sign the resulting petition asked for copies and time to enable those in their respective circles who weren’t able to attend the meeting the opportunity to sign on to their petition. Over the next 12 days, more and more copies were dropped off at Ted Hsu’s constituency office. It has now been submitted to the Clerk of the House with 580 signatures.
Subsequent to the meeting, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, released the first comprehensive study of the costs of the Harper Government’s “touch on crime” agenda. The criminal justice system cost Canadian taxpayers $20.3 billion in 2011-2012, a 23% rise over the past decade. To put this rise into perspective, it is important to recognize that Canadian crime rates had been falling steadily since 1991. In fact, in that same decade that the Harper Government was massively ramping up spending, those rates have dropped by that same 23%. Hence, instead of benefitting from $3.8 billion in annual savings, taxpayers are forking out $3.8 billion more every year, a tab while will continue to soar as the effects of the government’s mandatory sentencing legislation work their way through the criminal justice system.
The Government, of course, hides those numbers, pretending that they are spending less on prisons. Part of that is cuts to Correctional Services that are making double-bunking the norm and rehabilitation programs unavailable to most offenders, thereby burdening us with massive future costs and consequences. The biggest part of this sleight of hand, however, is the fact that 75% of the costs are borne by our deficit-ridden provinces, which means $2.85 billion less for health, education and other community services.
Given the Harper Government’s systematic disinclination to consult with Canadians before taking actions that affect their lives and futures, petitions to Parliament are one of the few democratic mechanisms remaining to citizens who wish to publicly question those actions. The Government is required to reply to petitions within 45 calendar days of their being presented in the House. We will post the Government’s response here as soon as it is received, which will give you the opportunity to judge for yourself the degree to which they have honestly answered your concerns as articulated in this petition.
This process provides an excellent example of a Member of Parliament actually performing what MPs are elected to do, which is to represent the views and concerns of their constituents in Parliament. MPs who do little more than mouth the scripts set out for them by the Prime Minister and his shadowy inner circle of unelected advisors are neither doing their jobs nor serving democracy.
Expenditure Analysis of Criminal Justice in Canada (March 20, 2013 report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer)
The Fear Factor: Stephen Harper’s “Tough on Crime” Agenda (report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
Prison reform: A smart way for states to save money and lives – Newt Gingrich, the father of the US “tough on crime” experiment, admits it to have been a colossal failure and urges conservative legislators to find intelligent ways to reduce prison populations. So why must Mr. Harper take Canada down that same failed road?
Text of Petition:
We, the undersigned electors of Canada, draw the attention of the House of Commons to the following:
THAT, in spite of the continuing long-term decline in Canadian crime rates, the Government has chosen to adopt multi-billion dollar “tough on crime” policies modelled on American policies, which the US is abandoning because they have proven to be ruinously expensive failures;
THAT those policies are resulting in ever more inmates being crammed into already-full federal prisons, with inadequate rehabilitation programs and very limited treatment and help for aging inmates, the high proportion who suffer from serious mental illnesses and other mental and physical health concerns;
THAT overcrowding and the recent decision to embrace double-bunking are contrary to recognized corrections best practices, cause dangerous, high-stress workplaces for correctional staff and inmates, may violate federal law (CCRA Section 70), Charter and international human rights standards, and risk similar outcomes to those experienced in the United States – unacceptably high recidivism rates due to offenders completing their sentences angrier, more violent and less equipped to hold down a job than when initially convicted;
THAT expending many billions of our tax dollars by building more prison spaces and increasing incarceration, while failing to track key outcomes such as recidivism, and simultaneously cutting back on funding for crime prevention constitutes fiscal mismanagement;
AND THAT we, as Canadians, consider the soaring incarceration rate of our aboriginal citizens to be tantamount to systemic discrimination and a source of national shame;
THEREFORE, your petitioners call upon the Government of Canada to identify and adopt rational best practices, including avoidance of double bunking, which have been proven in Canada and elsewhere to reduce crime, rehabilitate offenders, minimize recidivism and improve public safety.