JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

July 11, 2011

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised during the recent election campaign to pass all of his government's crime legislation in one package of bills within the first 100 sitting days of the new Parliament. In the June 3 Speech from the Throne, the Conservative government promised to "move quickly to reintroduce comprehensive law-and-order legislation to combat crime and terrorism."

Canadians will likely discover what exactly this omnibus legislation will contain in September when the House of Commons reconvenes. Canada's major churches fear that these measures will be ineffective, inappropriate — and very expensive.

Some believe getting "tough on crime" will deter offences. However, it is more often the case, experts attest, that criminals will offend if they believe they will succeed in carrying out the crime, regardless of the penalty if caught.

More to the point, crime rates in Canada have been steadily falling since the early 1990s. According to federal government figures, property crimes have declined 50 per cent since 1991 and violent crimes fell 14 per cent since 1992. The year 2009 (a year of substantial economic recession) had the lowest crime rate in 25 years. It doesn't seem then, that this flurry of legislation is related to a growing crime problem.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC) is comprised of 11 Church bodies, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. CCJC made headlines earlier this year when it wrote to the prime minister, pleading for a reconsideration of his government's crime agenda — to consider "the impact it will have on the most disadvantaged, its lack of effectiveness and its serious budgetary implications."

The churches report that more than a third of prisoners in Canada have not even been convicted of a crime — they are awaiting trial.

Further, the majority of Canadian inmates are serving sentences for non-violent offences (78 per cent of those in provincial jails and 31 per cent in federal penitentiaries). Many repeat offenders are mentally ill and/or addicted, poor and poorly educated — people who require treatment, health services, education, housing and employment.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews recently acknowledged 13 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women in jails have some form of mental illness. He also noted that prisons are not able to meet the needs of mentally ill offenders.

The increase of inmates with mental illness is linked to the closing of mental hospitals across Canada. Yet, a report from the federal prison ombudsman last fall warned that serious funding, implementation and accountability gaps are hindering the delivery of mental-health services behind bars.

NO COUNSELLING

The CCJC argues convincingly that it makes no sense to spend $800,000 to build each new prison bed while denying inmates the counselling and services which have the most proven results in turning lives away from crime. Nonetheless, the federal government is committed to a massive prison building plan.

The June 2011 federal budget announced a 21 per cent hike in the budget of the Correctional Service of Canada - this at a time of fiscal restraint. While other federal services will be slashed to achieve $4 billion in annual savings, the Correctional Service plans more new hires than any other federal government agency.

Correction ministry is of special concern to Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse. I asked him what he thought of the federal plan to combine up to a dozen pieces of legislation and push them through the House this fall.

He responded that, "It is unfortunate that a number of significant crime bills are being lumped together. Each one is important and has significant repercussions on an already overburdened court and judicial system. A bill passed by Parliament does not necessarily result in 'a safer society.'

"Most organizations and businesses will at least pilot a new program direction or business plan to see if it is wise, prudent, fiscally and socially responsible for the common good. I can only hope that someone will take a longer second look at some of the initiatives that actually reduce crime (such as housing and education.)

"Increasing incarceration rates and time behind bars has never achieved the results envisioned nor have victims been truly healed or restored."

Several faith communities, including members of the Sisters of Providence, joined community groups in opposing the closing of prison farms in Kingston this past year. This fall, Canadians will surely engage in renewed debate about corrections policies and spending. Christians might well start to reflect now about whether we should be "tough on crime" — or tough on poverty, illiteracy and other social ills.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)