MP Ted Falk’s recent column “Protecting Canadian Families from Repeat Violent Offenders” brings up the issue of parole and recidivism (or the rate at which released offenders re-offend). These are important issues, and the Green Party recognizes the need to do better for Canadians in regard to the way that prisoners are rehabilitated and reintroduced to society. Let’s start by unpacking Ted’s column a bit.
Ted provides some context for his column by describing the situation the Conservatives are hoping to correct: “Under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, federal offenders serving fixed-term sentences are allowed to serve the final third of their sentence in the community under supervision and subject to conditions.” This is true. I’ve done a bit of research and found out what “under supervision” and “subject to conditions” actually means. You can read the full text of the existing law, with the relevant page here, but I’ll unpack the terms.
“Under supervision” refers to the fact that prisoners are only released to serve the last third of their sentence in the community after being reviewed to determine that they are not a safety risk. This includes the opportunity for victims of the offender to offer a statement of their loss or concerns about the offender’s release. When this happens, the releasing authority can impose any conditions on the release of the offender that the authority deems necessary to protect that person. If the authority is concerned about the possibility for re-offending, they can instead release the offender to a community-based residential facility or psychiatric facility. This is what is meant by “subject to conditions.”
What all of that means is that these offenders are not being “automatically” put out onto the street. They’re being reviewed, including consultation with their victims, and when appropriate they are released to a less restrictive, less degrading, and less expensive form of control. By reversing this system, then, the Conservatives are not stopping a revolving door out of prison, they’re simply imposing mandatory sentencing in another form. They’re electing to treat every prisoner exactly the same, regardless of their personal level of rehabilitation.
To put this into perspective, let’s look at two hypothetical prisoners, both of whom have committed a violent crime. One may have been a crime of passion or self-defense, the other a cold and calculated murder (Ted didn’t define violent crime, so the description fits either), but for the purposes of this example it doesn’t even matter. Let’s just say that they both have nine years to serve.
Prisoner A has applied himself during his sentence, taken the rehabilitative programming seriously, perhaps even earned a college degree online; his warden and chaplain are both willing to vouch for his transformation even halfway through his sentence. Prisoner A is a model prisoner, exactly what our prison is supposed to strive for in all prisoners. He writes letters to his family, talking about all of the things he’ll do with them when he gets out.
Prisoner B, on the other hand, doesn’t participate in any rehabilitative programming unless forced to. While in prison he has joined a gang, and been involved in several violent altercations with other inmates from rival gangs. He threatens others regularly about all of the things he’ll do to them when he gets out.
This example is a bit extreme, but it’s meant to be: it shows the best-case scenario for a prisoner being rehabilitated, and the worst-case scenario that we see in movies and on television, in which a hardened criminal gets harder and more dangerous in prison. Under our current system, Prisoner A has the opportunity to serve the last three years of his sentence in the community. This means that he can potentially go home to his family, or at least be in closer contact with them. He can live in more humane conditions, and is able to continue to better himself through greater access to education or work, both of which are essential to keeping offenders from re-offending. He has all of this offered to him, provided he can apply himself and show progress; that’s what drove him to work so hard to better himself on the inside.
What Ted is suggesting is that this program be cancelled, and that Prisoner A and Prisoner B be treated exactly the same, both required to serve every minute of their sentence under the tightest control. Doing so would replace the judgment of our corrections officers with an across-the-board judgment that anyone who commits a crime will do so again, which effectively tells our corrections officers that they need not bother trying to rehabilitate anyone. “Corrections” will be even less about rehabilitation, and even more about arbitrary forms of punishment with little sense of fairness or proportionality.
What Ted also didn’t mention is that violent crime is at an all-time low in Canada, and that our recidivism (re-offending) rate is already lower than similar nations such as the US and the UK (according to a 2003 study). A study in 1993 shows that, of the criminals who re-offended after release, for half of them the re-offence was a breach of parole conditions and not a new offense; and prisoners who are fully paroled have an even lower long-term recidivism rate than those who are released conditionally. So the stats tell us that full parole is actually potentially more effective than even conditional release, and that the chances of being harmed by a violent offender, first time or otherwise, is the lowest it’s ever been. The policy Ted’s suggesting is actually going against what our own Corrections Canada research tells us about how prisoners are rehabilitated, and would cost us considerably more long-term (each prisoner costs taxpayers roughly $100,000 per year). And I found all of this in the first few hits on a Google search.
The Green Party of Canada recommends a greater use of Restorative Justice in Canada. For some great facts about Restorative Justice and prison in general, I recommend checking out the website of Prison Fellowship Canada. We can have safer communities, but this goal isn’t in conflict with treating prisoners fairly or rehabilitating and restoring offenders to society.