“The 2011 Canadian rate of 1.73 homicides per 100,000 population is the lowest of all the Americas, 14 times lower than in Mexico and about one-third of the rate in the United States. The homicide rate in Canada is more comparable to many European countries and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), but remains much higher than the rate in Japan and Hong Kong.”
So reports Statistics Canada in its latest international comparison of homicide rates.
Yet to listen to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet and their ongoing “tough on crime” drumbeat, you would think Canada was in the midst of a major crime wave.
Indeed, Canada’s incarceration rate is rising. But that’s because of the Harper Conservatives’ continuous pandering to their base with ever more punitive incarceration and so-called “anti-crime laws.” They’re simply hoping their simplistic, binary “you’re either with us or with the criminals” will work with the majority of Canadians.
Bets are they’re likely to be disappointed.
That’s because it’s just not so. It’s time to stop self-serving political hyperbole and repudiate the “be afraid, be very afraid” Conservative hysteria. Let’s look at the facts.
Canada’s incarceration rate is around 120 per 100,000 population while European incarceration rates are just about half that, between 60 and 90 per 100,000.
Meanwhile, the U.S. incarceration rate (currently over 700 per 100,000 population) and its other mantras such as “life means life” still leaves the U.S. experiencing much higher crime than either Europe or Canada.
In fact, as history teaches, the harsher the punishment, the bigger the push back. Therefore, harsher punishment is not only not a solution to the problem, but the biggest part of the problem.
The American solution is wrong from every measure. What does it say that the nation with the most punitive anti-crime laws among first-world democracies also boasts the highest incarceration rate among those democracies? Is it not a complete repudiation of the idea that punishment and prison areis the tried and true solution to “rampant” crime and lawlessness?
In reality, the whole safety/punishment mantra has nothing to do with science and evidence. It’s simply raw political opportunism by a governing party who likes to use fear and threat to capture every populist wave it can generate to mine more support and money from its already rock-solid base.
“We’ve seen more criminal justice measures in a short time than I’ve seen before in my career,” Howard Sapers, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, says. Yet, he adds, “criminologists and political scientists have tried to catalogue all the legislative changes and policy changes – and they’re available on academic search sites – but there really isn’t a comprehensive list and one of the issues that I’ve been concerned about is we really don’t have a good picture of what the cumulative and combined effect of all this change will be.”
Sapers says a lot of the changes in corrections “have been very one-off and very idiosyncratic.” For example, he cites a change in the law regarding the amount of pre-trial credit. “The analysis of that was done in isolation of another change that happened about the same time which was the abolition of accelerated parole review for first-time non-violent offenders and that was changed at about the same time there was a policy change about the amount of time the offender would have to wait for second parole hearing if he was denied parole at his first hearing.
“So you have three distinct initiatives all rolling out at about the same time but with no comprehensive view that if we look at all of these three together what is their interactions and what kind of cumulative effect they may have on the system and the population and we’re still figuring those things out as we go.”
Another unplanned side effect of the Harper “tough on crime” agenda has led to a significant increase in the number of people in both provincial and federal jails. “Over the last three or five years, we’ve definitely seen a population increase and it’s definitely around eight to 10 per cent at the federal level and perhaps a little more at the provincial level.”
And the dominos just keep falling. “We’re now seeing, for example, a higher proportion of provincially incarcerated individuals are being held pre-trial which means they’re simply being held on remand and haven’t even been convicted.”
It’s not uncommon now for 60 to 65 per cent of all provincial and territorial jails having to house inmates who are still at the pre-trial stage – in other words, serving time before they’ve been found guilty and sentenced. In case the government won’t tell you, that’s akin to denying the ancient right to due process.
Says Saper, “It’s hard to disassemble some of this. You really don’t know the impact.”
What is, however, becoming very clear is the current federal government’s determination to ensure that Canadians who run afoul of the law can expect to serve a lot more “hard time.”
They’re apparently so disinterested in fairness and equity that they don’t even bother to examine the results of their ideological and sociological “experiments.” If they did bother, they would find that their “tough on crime” experiments are not only not working but are creating a downward spiral of more crime spinning off ever-harsher sentences creating more crime etc. etc.
Sentencing judges once had a considerable amount of discretion to give credit for pre-trial custody, Sapers says. The reason was the poor conditions and lack of programs in most provincial remand centres. “Sentencing judges would give one and sometimes as many as two or two and a half days credit for every day served in the remand centre. So if you were going to have two days credit for every day served, if you had a 90-day sentence and you already spent 30 days in pre-trial custody then you would have 60 days credit taken off and you’d then have 30 days to serve. But the federal government changed that law to restrict that discretion so there can only be one for one except in exceptional circumstances.”
Another clampdown by the Harper Conservatives has led to the abolition of accelerated parole review or APR. It used to be available for non-violent first-time offenders. “It wasn’t automatic parole. It just meant your case was referred to the board and if there was no reason to hold you in custody the board would direct your release as early as one-sixth of your sentence,” Sapers says. The idea was that it would help individuals re-integrate into their families and society and get a job. But the Harper government has not only decided to eliminate accelerated review, it has made its elimination retroactive.
Asked if Canada is out of step internationally with its moves back to harsh and punitive incarceration, Sapers points out that Canada’s incarceration rate is higher than in Europe and now, increasingly, harsher even than in the U.S.
“It’s been very clear. The creation of mandatory minimum (sentences), the reduction in access to parole, etc., has resulted in more people spending longer time in jail and in prison,” Sapers continues. “Their rationale? They sincerely believe this is the best way to keep Canadian communities safe. I can’t describe their motives.”
Hardly a day goes by without Ottawa adding yet another new “tough on crime” punishment to its burgeoning list of more punitive laws.
Most recently, it’s adopted a favourite U.S. punishment – “life means life” which means incarceration with no parole until death. Sapers notes that while “the Harper government likes to use that phrase, so far they haven’t given it any real meaning.
“The Supreme Court could get involved,” he says.” And I’m sure that if there were very significant changes, somebody would challenge that.”
In November, 2013, Canada’s prison population hit its highest peak ever, even though the crime rate has been decreasing over the last two decades. Ten years ago, the number of inmates in federal prisons was close to 12,000. Now it’s more than 15,000.
Overall spending in the Canadian justice system rose 23 per cent in the last decade – the decade of the Stephen Harper government. Yet in that same period, Canada’s crime rate fell by the same proportion.
No question about it. The Harper Conservatives know how to pander to their “tough on crime” base. And they don’t appear to care if its only real outcome is more crime and violence, less rehabilitation for inmates in prisons and penitentiaries – and far higher costs for taxpayers.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.