Canada’s prison system nothing like the U.S.’

September 20, 2011

OTTAWA, ON, Sept. 20, 2011/Troy Media/ – Crime will be high on parliament’s agenda in the autumn, given the priority that the Conservatives attached to the issue in the last election. You don’t have to be Conrad Black to have strong feelings about crime and punishment. But as on so many policy issues, feelings, no matter how strong they are, only get you so far.

If we try to think analytically about crime and punishment issues, however, we quickly see that each side in the debate brings something valuable to the table.

Take the opponents of Conservative policy. They are properly concerned to avoid the excesses of American penal policy. In the U.S., the numbers of people in prison beggar belief: According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1 per cent of American adults were in prison or jail at the end of 2009.

In U.S. jails for frivolous reasons

And many of them are there for frivolous reasons. People can be locked up for years for trivial drug offences or property crimes. Less than a 10th of prisoners are there for violent crimes. Three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws and long mandatory sentences are forcing up the prison population ever more rapidly. Spending on prisons in California now outstrips spending on state universities.

But the debate about corrections and prison in Canada is becoming much like the debate on health care: Any attempt to introduce needed reforms is immediately attacked by its opponents as ‘Americanization,’ regardless of the actual merits of the proposal.

In fact, to hear the anguished cries from some of the government’s critics, you’d believe that we have already reproduced the American ‘justice’ system in Canada. But according to research by Professor Ian Lee of Carleton University for my institute, the facts belie this view.

Take the numbers of people being put in prison in Canada. In 2009, almost 2.5 million crimes were reported to police in Canada. Only a 10th of these resulted in a perpetrator being convicted. Of those, about a quarter were sentenced to provincial prisons. How many went to federal prison? Fewer than 5,000. And according to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), that number has essentially been stable for the past decade.

In the U.S., long sentences are part of what drive the growth in the prison population. But in Canada, the total federal prison population over the past decade has fluctuated within a very narrow band: a low of 12,400 in 2003/04, and a high of about 13,600 in 2007/08. If just under 5000 are entering the system every year, and the total population is less than 14,000, the average inmate isn’t staying long.

How about the idea that Ottawa, like the U.S., is locking people up for trivial reasons? In Canada, nearly 70 per cent of federal inmates are there for violent crimes; over a quarter of all federal inmates are in for homicide, for example.

Yet the myth persists that Canada is now locking up a number of people totally disproportionate to other nations. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), however, (the best source of statistics that allow sensible comparisons between rich industrialized countries) we are no outlier. We incarcerate about 1/7th the number of people per 100,000 population in Canada versus the United States, but they are the great outlier. We put fewer people in jail relative to population than any of the other rich English-speaking democracies with a common law tradition (the UK, New Zealand and Australia) and we are below average for the OECD countries overall.

How about the idea that we are engaged in a vast orgy of prison-building to house our burgeoning prison population? Not quite. The last new federal prison was built in1988. On the other hand, 28 federal prisons are over 40 years old. The normal lifespan of a prison is considered to be around 50 years. The Kingston pen, built in 1835, is still very much in use today.

Prison system starved for funds

According to testimony from the Parliamentary Budget Office, a new medium or maximum security prison should cost approximately $240 million. The entire annual capital budget of the CSC is $230 million. Far from lavishing scarce tax dollars on unnecessary prison construction, the Government of Canada is starving the prison system of the capital budgets needed merely to maintain what we have in good working order, and has been doing so for decades. Yet old decrepit prisons are a huge obstacle to rehabilitation.

Canada must indeed be vigilant to avoid the excesses of the American justice system. The government has an obligation to justify its corrections policies in terms of the real increased protection they can offer to Canadians while also making all reasonable efforts to rehabilitate offenders. But claims of the wholesale Americanization of the Canadian criminal justice system are highly exaggerated.

Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: