Jailers fear PM's justice overhaul
January 11, 2007
Federal government proposals to get tougher on criminals would
hit aboriginal people the hardest, violate Charter rights of inmates,
and likely not make
for safer streets, says the agency that oversees federal prisons.
Underlying some of the agency's criticism is concern about dramatic increases
in the prison population that would result from the Conservatives' approach.
Among the targets in an analysis prepared by Correctional Services Canada's
strategic policy division are proposals for mandatory minimum sentences and
for the so-called three-strikes law, key elements of the Tories' law-and-order
The analysis says minimum sentences don't have a deterrent effect and drain
away funds available for social programs that prevent crime.
The proposal for a three-strikes law – designating as a dangerous offender
anyone convicted of a third violent or sexual offence – would have a "disproportionately higher
impact" on native people, the analysis says.
The analysis took aim at almost every law-and-order promise that would affect
prisoners made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives during the
election campaign a year ago.
The final version of the document, obtained by the Star under Access
to Information legislation, is dated Jan. 24, 2006 – the day after the
the election. It outlined "considerations" for the new government on each of its proposed policies, as well as advice on
the "direction/way forward."
The final document and its early drafts contain several blacked-out sections.
But the public servants' critique appears to offer more ammunition to the government's
Only two crime bills have passed – tougher penalties for street racing
and a watered-down version of the promised restrictions on conditional
or "house arrest."
The rest of the Tories' promised measures are either stalled in the minority
Parliament, or still to be introduced. But Harper appears undeterred by either
opposition or concerns of the public service, naming law and order as still
among the government's priorities.
Here are some key excerpts from the bureaucrats' analysis:
As it turned out, the combined Liberal, Bloc Québécois and New Democratic opposition
succeeded in substantially amending this bill, and a watered-down version passed
the Commons and Senate. A source told the Star yesterday that without the amendments,
the law would have had a huge impact on provincial jail populations.
- On mandatory minimum prison sentences, legislation which the Conservatives
have introduced for gun- and gang-related crime, and promised for serious
drug offences, and for crimes committed while on parole or for repeat
offenders: "Research shows mandatory minimums do not have a deterrent or educative effect." It notes the United States is moving away from mandatory minimum sentences,
and embarking on reforms to improve parole to ease crowding and reduce incarceration
rates. It says "increased incarceration reduces funds available for social programs that prevent
- On Harper's promise to repeal statutory release, the legal right to
early release for prisoners who serve two-thirds of their sentences,
behaviour: Such a proposal would have a huge impact on prison populations.
says two-thirds of all federal offenders released in 2004-05 were statutory
releases, with generally few problems. In the last five years, it said,
only 3 per cent of offenders out on statutory release saw their freedom
revoked "for a violent offence."
The biggest advantage, it suggests, is the ability of correctional authorities
to supervise the inmate in the community for the last third of a sentence.
Impact on aboriginal offenders is flagged. Without statutory release,
it says, they would "be further delayed in their return to the community, preventing them from benefiting
from more culturally appropriate interventions."
- On promised consecutive sentences for multiple violent or sexual offences: "Credible research shows that longer sentences do not contribute to public safety
and may actually increase the risk of recidivism (repeat offences) for
- On promises to kill the "faint hope" clause that allows inmates sentenced to life a possibility of bidding for parole
after 15 years in jail: The analysis makes clear that most eligible offenders
do not bother to apply. Of those who have ultimately won parole, only
a handful have been returned to custody.
(As of Dec. 2004, there were 712 eligible lifers, it said. Since 1991,
when the "faint hope" clause became available – access to it was tightened in 1997– 118 of 145 applicants
were successful in winning parole, and of those, 17 were returned to
custody for breaching the conditions of their release.)
- On Harper's suggestions that a Tory government would take away voting
rights from federal prisoners: The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld
prisoner-voting rights as "unfettered."
On a proposal to automatically designate as a "dangerous offender" anyone convicted of a third violent or sexual offence (sometimes called the "three-strikes" bill): The bureaucrats' analysis says because aboriginal offenders have a higher
rate of conviction for assault and related offences, the proposal could have
a "disproportionately higher impact" on natives.
A "dangerous offender" designation draws an indefinite sentence, and the offender can't apply for parole
until after at least seven years in custody.
- On restricting access to conditional sentences (also known as "house arrest"): Conditional sentences are imposed in fewer than 5 per cent of all cases, have
reduced admissions to provincial jails by 13 per cent with no negative impact
on crime rates, and "generally worked well and garnered praise from sentencing experts around the
world," said the bureaucrats.
After last week's cabinet shuffle, Harper repeated his resolve to push ahead
with the law-and-order agenda.
But he is clearly frustrated with the kind of advice his government has received
from the public service.
On Sunday, asked what he'd learned as prime minister, Harper complained
on CBC Radio's Cross-Country Check-up of the "practical" difficulties of working with bureaucrats.
Harper said the most difficult thing he had to learn as prime minister "is dealing with the federal bureaucracy." It is a question of getting "the bureaucracy moving in the direction you want them to move while not becoming
... captive of them. ..."
A call to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day's office was not returned.
More on Tory Law and Order Agenda on prisonjustice.ca:
Tory Bill Increasing Mandatory Minimums for Gun Laws Facing Critics In Justice Committee
Three Strikes Bill
Mandatory Minimums and Gun Crimes, Banning Conditional Sentencing