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Prison Overcrowding Town Hall

IMG_3452On March 16, 2013 Kingston and the Islands Federal Liberal Association organized a non-partisan town hall on the issue of prison overcrowding, double-bunking, and their consequences. More than 150 concerned Kingston and area residents gathered at City Hall to join the vigorous public discussion. 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 to the House of Commons.

IMG_3517It 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. Prison overcrowding denies 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.

IMG_3484Participants 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. The petition was submitted to the Clerk of the House with 580 signatures.

Watch highlights of the public forum:

Prison Overcrowding Part 1: Background & Speakers Speeches

Prison Overcrowding Part 2: Public Discussion

Prison Overcrowding Part 3: Kingston MP Ted Hsu Explains the Petition Process

Subsequent to the meeting, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, released the first comprehensive study of the costs of the Harper Government’s “tough 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 benefiting 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.

RESPONSE TO THE PETITION: 

Kingston and the Islands MP Ted Hsu presented the petition to the House of Commons on April 15, 2013. Note that House rules require  presenting MPs to summarize the petitions rather than reading the text word for word.

We received the official Government reply submitted by then Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews on June 3, 2013. You can view our annotated reply HERE, which we hope will best facilitate your judging for yourselves the Government’s willingness and ability to give reasoned responses to your concerns.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: 

Fact sheet on crime

Expenditure Analysis of Criminal Justice in Canada (March 20, 2013 report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer)

A critical review of the practice of double bunking within corrections

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?