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Correctional Service Of Canada Criticizes Tory Tough On Crime Policies

Jailers fear PM's justice overhaul
January 11, 2007
Tonda MacCharles

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 agenda.

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 Conservatives won 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 critics.

Only two crime bills have passed – tougher penalties for street racing and a watered-down version of the promised restrictions on conditional sentencing 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:
  • 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 crime."

  • On Harper's promise to repeal statutory release, the legal right to early release for prisoners who serve two-thirds of their sentences, upon good behaviour: Such a proposal would have a huge impact on prison populations. The document 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 some offenders."

  • 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.

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.

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
Tory Bill Increasing Mandatory Minimums for Gun Laws Facing Critics In Justice Committee
Three Strikes Bill
Mandatory Minimums and Gun Crimes, Banning Conditional Sentencing