Budgets have no bottoms. Promises know no bounds. No baby has gone un-kissed. It must be Federal election time in Canada.
With political pandering at a fever pitch and politicians tripping over themselves to promise the earth, moon and stars to an election-weary electorate, it is an ideal time to exercise some wish-list thinking when it comes to criminal justice reform.
For all the bumps and bruises suffered by the ruling Conservatives at least one aspect of their message continues to garner broad popular support – ‘tough-on-crime’. With the outlier exception of legalizing marijuana, only the most suicidal politician would ever campaign on a promise to go easier on convicted criminals. Yet, a broad swath of small-c conservatives (and I dare suspect a large chunk of those who spell Conservative with a capital C), worry more about dollars and cents than they do about penitentiaries and parole. Costs for housing federal inmates have soared 46% in a decade. The average male inmate now costs taxpayers $117,788 per year with female offenders nearly doubling that at $211,618 each per year. Add in considerably longer sentences that are a function of numerous legislative changes in the past five years and you have a recipe for soaring correctional costs which skyrocketed from $1.6 billion in 2002-2003 to $2.7 billion in 2013 [Source: Corrections Canada as reported in the Edmonton Sun].
So what’s a fiscally conscious, ethically cognizant, crime-fighting legislator to do to prove his tough-on-crime credentials without breaking the bank, or the backs of the human souls of criminals? Another batch of statistics contains the clues to our answer.
Let’s look away from crime for a moment and look at criminals. 13% of male inmates and 29% of female inmates enter prison with mental health needs identified at intake. 24% of our entire inmate population is aboriginal (though First Nations people make up just over 4% of the total Canadian population). Four out of five male offenders have a substance abuse problem and nearly two thirds were under the influence of an intoxicant at the time they committed their offence. For those who believe the prison system is a sieve leaking hardened criminals through a permissive parole system, over the last 10 years day parole has decreased 15% with full parole plummeting 40% leaving more and more offenders with few if any support programs at their delayed point of community reintegration. [Source: Office of the Correctional Investigator (Howard Sapers), Annual Report 2013-2014, Backgrounder]
Recently, Prime Minister Harper, battered in the polls by the heart-wrenching image of young Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach, sounded both defiant and angered by opposing politicians who were suddenly tripping over themselves to promise safe sanctuary to an ever escalating numbers of Syrian refugees while still proclaiming their intention to pull Canadian troops from the international military coalition overseas. The PM’s message has repeatedly been that refugee resettlement is only part of the solution to this international crisis – the humanitarian response must include an ongoing commitment to battle the source of the refugee crisis: ISIS and the burgeoning war in the Middle East.
Conservatives see with a clarity unique amongst Canadian politicians, the need to stop the refugee crisis at its source. If there is a crisis of crime in Canada (though every statistical analysis for the past thirty years proves the contrary), why are Conservatives so resistant to attacking crime at its source? We don’t need expensive CF-18s, state-of-the-art bunker-busting bombs, or highly trained JTF2 soldiers, to attack this foe, when a small platoon of psychiatrists, addiction counsellors and social workers will do the trick. Why do we refuse year after year to take a portion of the money spent on new prisons, more correctional officers, and longer sentences, on substance abuse programs, aboriginal employment opportunities, and mental health resources? The numbers don’t lie. Just as the refugee crisis calls for both humanitarian compassion and military resolve, the solution to crime must include more than reactionary hardline policies after a crime has been committed. This is where a fiscally responsible government proves it is tough on crime because nothing is tougher on criminals, than beating crimes before they happen.