February 7, 2011

WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

OTTAWA — The Church Council on Justice and Corrections has strongly condemned the Conservative government's plans to sharply increase spending on new federal prisons.

"The vision of justice we find in Scripture is profound and radically different from that which your government is proposing," council president Laurent Champagne said in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is among groups representing 11 Christian churches that belong to the CCJC.

The council, in its letter dated Dec. 17 and made public Jan. 24, said the government's prison-building plans represent a significant cost at a time of federal budget cuts.

The government plans to spend $2 billion over five years to build 13 new federal and provincial jails required to accommodate prisoners serving longer sentences under its new Truth in Sentencing law.

The government's estimate for the cost of running Canada's prisons will jump from $4.4 billion a year to $9.5 billion a year by 2015-16.

But the CCJC's main concern is that "Increasing levels of incarceration of marginalized people is counter-productive and undermines human dignity in our society."

By putting more people in jail with longer sentences, the opportunity for successful rehabilitation is decreased, Champagne wrote.

Other programs with equal or better records in terms of "re-offence rates" are, meanwhile, being underfunded, he said. Those programs include well-supervised probation or release, bail options, reporting centres, practical assistance, supportive housing, and programs that promote accountability, respect and reparation.

LESS COSTLY

Such programs are much less costly and result in "much less human damage," he said.

"The Canadian government has regretfully embraced a belief in punishment for crime that first requires us to isolate and separate the offender from the rest of us, in our minds as well as in our prisons."

In a speech last month, Harper said, "Canadians want to be able to feel safe in their homes and communities and that means that the bad guys need to be taken out of circulation.

"Does that cost money? Yes. Is it worth it? Just ask a victim."

Champagne, however, said the government's approach "has been repeatedly proven neither to reduce crime nor to assist victims."

COSTLY OVER-REACTION

Incarceration is a costly response for dealing with non-violent offenders and repeat offenders who are mentally ill or addicted, "the majority of whom are not classified as high risk."

"These offenders are disproportionately poor, ill-equipped to learn, (and) from the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

"They require treatment, health services, educational, employment and housing interventions - all less expensive and more humane than incarceration."

The CCJC says Scripture calls us "to be a people in relationship with each other through our conflicts and sins, with the ingenious creativity of God's Spirit to find our way back into covenant community."

Public safety, it says, "is enhanced through healthy communities that support individuals and families."

Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon, a long time former prison chaplain, has also spoken against the new legislation making many of the same points raised by the CCJC.