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November 1, 2006 - Vancouver Sun (CN BC)

OpEd: Crime - Are Cells And Bars The Answer?

Lock 'Em Up And Throw Away The Key Sounds Great, But Decades Of Experience Show Harsh Sentences Don't Work

By Shawn Bayes and Tim Veresh (Shawn Bayes is executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, and Tim Veresh is executive director of the John Howard Society of the Lower Mainland

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In the aftermath of several gruesome shootings, people are asking what meaningful steps can be taken to deal with crime.

The federal government response comes in a series of get-tough-on-crime laws that will see more prisons being built and more people imprisoned for longer terms. The laws, Bill C-9 and C-10, restrict the use of conditional sentencing and expand the use of mandatory minimum sentences. Nearing adoption, the bills are expected to be joined soon by a "three-strikes-and-you're-in-jail-for-life" law.

While purporting to make our streets safer, these changes will have dramatically negative effects for Canadians.

More people will serve more time behind bars -- one parliamentary report estimates about 5,500 a year, most destined for already tense, over-crowded provincial prisons. Results are predictable: More double-bunking of prisoners, increased danger for staff and prisoners, higher suicide rates and decreased ability to assist people to improve their lives.

As the founding Elizabeth Fry and John Howard societies in Canada, we've worked extensively with the people who will be most affected by these laws.

Take Patricia, a 17-year-old welfare-fraud mother with serious psychological problems, who would now go to prison -- her children ending up in care.

Or 24-year-old Maggie. After years of violent childhood sexual abuse, she landed in an abusive relationship, was caught waiting in a car while her boyfriend made a drug drop, and was charged as an accomplice. It's precisely this category of crime in the United States where mandatory minimums have resulted in longer sentences for women; even with little involvement, they are charged as accomplices to crimes committed by their partners.

Then there's Albert, a 22-year-old unemployed Aboriginal struggling with the effects of childhood sexual abuse and addictions. When physically threatened, he made threats and waved a hunting rifle he carries in his truck. Rifles in truck cabs are not uncommon in rural communities, and a common part of traditional Aboriginal lifestyles.

Charged with assault, Albert would now face a mandatory minimum five years in prison; he wouldn't have access to the culturally appropriate community sentence previously available. On this issue, experience in Australia is especially telling; mandatory minimum sentences have had a devastating impact on Aboriginals.

It's not just the combined 140 years' experience of our agencies that tells us the government measures will be catastrophic. The bills face widespread opposition, from academics to criminologists to community groups.

Organizations like the Canadian Criminal Justice Association and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network point out that almost every empirical study indicates longer periods of incarceration do not deter crime: they don't deter gun crime, they don't reduce drug use, and they may actually increase the likelihood of re-offences or recidivism. Negative experience is pushing jurisdictions from Britain to Australia to reassess and retreat from longer, mandatory minimum sentences.

The proposed restrictions on conditional sentencing are particularly alarming. Ten years ago, Canada had one of the highest per capita imprisonment rates in the developed world and a higher rate of crime than today. Partly to address this appalling reality, parliament adopted conditional sentencing in 1996. Where appropriate, offenders serve supervised time in the community, not in prison. As the name implies, these sentences entail conditions, like house arrest, community service, mandatory substance abuse treatment, or counseling.

Over 50,000 conditional sentences later, Canadian experience shows they have clearly reduced the number of incarcerations. And they have served the rehabilitative purpose envisaged: They have been widely used to assist offenders to tackle issues, like addictions, underlying crime. Conditional sentences were essential in allowing Patricia, Maggie, and Albert to transform their lives.

How will harsher sanctions help these people and thousands more like them? Jail time hardens and scars human beings. It results in poverty, isolation, erosion of health, and loss of children, employment, autonomy, and self-esteem.

Such outcomes increase the likelihood of recidivism. Harsher sentences also don't address the root causes of crime -- well documented as springing from adverse social, economic, cultural, and family conditions. Today's abused and neglected child is often tomorrow's offender.

The government approach carries a staggering price tag. Estimates put additional prison spending at $5 billion to $11.5 billion over 10 years. And unless our taxes go up, that can be predicted to strip even more resources from the very social programs that could make a difference. Conditional sentences can help here, too.

While it costs about $45,000 per year to incarcerate a provincial prisoner, the costs of alternative justice like community supervision are a fraction of that, around $2,000 per year.

If we directed even a fraction of the billions earmarked for prisons to health, education, housing, welfare, employment programs, addictions and sexual-abuse treatment, and to agencies like ours that assist offenders to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens, the results would be enormously healing for individuals and communities.

An iron-fisted approach to fighting crime doesn't work. We support safe communities. However, Bills C-9 and C-10 won't deter or rehabilitate offenders. They won't make our streets safer.

We face a clear choice: a reactive, punitive response already demonstrated to fail, or an alternative course other countries have found to be both more humane and more effective. Canada needs the latter, a different vision of society from the brave new world the government is steering us toward--one that would be safer and healthier for all of us.

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