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Criminologists fear private prison boom
OTTAWA — Leading criminologists say Conservative plans to get tougher on crime could result in superjails run for profit by private companies eager to cash in on those plans.
They're watching for details as Parliament resumes Monday on how the new government would pay for one of its top priorities: a justice strategy that experts agree would dramatically spike demand for costly prison space.
"Either they'll spend a ridiculous, unsubstantiated amount of money on this or, more likely, they'll move to a more private model of corrections," says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in B.C.
"And that has another set of problems."
Dilemmas include the thorny ethical question of whether corporations that profit from having full cell blocks should be charged with caring for violent inmates. Critics point out the obvious absence of any business incentive to lower rates of repeat offence.
The U.S. experience with private prisons suggests higher rates of return to jail, more in-custody incidents, more escapes and higher staff turnover, says Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto.
Incarceration rates have quadrupled south of the border since the mid-1970s. There are now more than two million Americans behind bars, compared to about 12,000 federal prisoners in Canada, largely due to tougher U.S. sentencing and parole laws — the very kind of crackdown now proposed by the Tories.
More troubling, criminologists say, is the lack of proof that jailing more people for longer terms increases public safety.
"(The Conservatives) have not been able to give one shred of decent evidence to support the claim that it will make our communities safer," Boyd said in an interview.
"Sentences are already pretty tough for serious crime. It's one of the few areas of public policy where science consistently ... has taken a back seat to just blind faith and politics."
Melisa Leclerc, spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, stressed that "a small group of offenders are responsible for a large amount of crime.
"When those persons have reduced opportunity to continue their criminal ways, less crime occurs and that means significant savings in policing and court time. It also means fewer victims, which for us is a cost worth measuring."
Still, the Conservatives intend to act "in a fiscally responsible way," she said.
As for the prospect of private prisons: "We have never advocated that," Leclerc said.
Yet the question remains: Is more time behind bars the best way to lower crime?
Research in the U.S. suggests not, says Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Rates of violent crime in America have fallen to record lows since 1992, he said. But a huge surge in public spending on imprisonment — to $58 billion a year from $9 billion in 1982 — has not been the driving force, he says.
"Researchers who've looked at this say maybe 20 or 25 per cent of the decline in violence can be attributed to the significant increase in incarceration. There are other factors that contribute three-quarters of the explanation."
These include more police resources, drug treatment programs and crime prevention efforts.
Leclerc says the Tories plan a balanced approach. "We also intend to invest in effective crime prevention."
Support for tougher sentencing is not limited to the Conservatives. The Liberals and NDP jumped, to a lesser extent, on the crackdown bandwagon during the last election. Both parties called for more and longer mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.
The message played well to a public horrified by a recent spate of largely gang-related slayings in Toronto.
Liberals and New Democrats now say the Tories must dilute their platform if they want opposition support in a very divided Parliament.
Conservatives are calling for automatic sentences of up to 10 years for certain gun crimes. But that's just one aspect of a Tory justice strategy that could trigger court challenges and send costs soaring.
Doob cites a proposal to end statutory release — the policy that gives federal inmates parole after two-thirds of their sentence unless they're shown to be too dangerous.
Instead, the Tories says prisoners should earn parole through good behaviour and rehabilitation.
Doob predicts that parole officials would be reluctant to risk freeing many of them. "Those folks are going to sit until warrant expiry, just like Karla Homolka."
That generally costs the state much of its authority to supervise an inmate's social reintegration to lessen the chance of reoffence, he added.
"That makes no correctional sense."
Moreover, it costs about $86,400 a year to house an inmate, Doob said. Expenses swiftly rise whenever terms are extended.
Billions of dollars more would be needed to add prison space, Doob says, if the Conservatives swelled inmate ranks through other proposed measures:
— Mandatory minimum prison terms for drug traffickers.
— Ending house arrest for certain violent and sexual offences, major drug crimes and weapons offences.
— Mandatory consecutive sentences (instead of concurrent terms) for select multiple violent or sexual offences.
"This is going to put pressure on the government to privatize, in large part, because . . . then they don't have to put up the capital," Doob said. "I think they're going to privatize in the American way.
"It's going to be real trouble."