Tories tough-on-crime agenda gutted but prison expansion still needed

[Kingston Penitentiary cellblock/Wikipedia]

The new Liberal government has committed to dismantling much of the former Conservative regime’s tough-on-crime policies that haven’t already been gutted by the courts.

But one bricks-and-mortar manifestation of those policies has survived — the massive expansion of the federal prison system launched by then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

The program to add 2,700 new cells at various institutions begun in 2010 in anticipation of more criminals serving longer sentences is largely finished.

“The construction is substantially complete,” Howard Sapers, of the Correctional Investigator of Canada watchdog, told Yahoo Canada News.

The program will cost almost $700 million. Some projects are not yet staffed and operational, Sapers said, “but overall the building projects are complete at almost three dozen building sites across the country. It was very ambitious.”

A series of court rulings effectively neutered measures designed to fill those new cells, such as mandatory minimum sentences for some firearms and drug offences, and eliminating double credit for time served in pre-trial custody.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his mandate letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, has also ordered a review of the Tories’ other stringent policies, as well as promising to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana — all measures likely to reduce the flow of new inmates.

The irony, though, is that the added prison cells are still needed thanks largely to another legacy of the Harper era: problems with the parole system.

Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) currently houses 14,790 inmates and its institutions have a rated national capacity of 16,521. But Sapers said prisons aren’t like hotels.

“Not everybody can go into every room,” he said.

Also read: One-on-One: Discussing the state of Canada’s Correctional Services with investigator Howard Sapers

Double-bunking – putting two inmates in a cell designed for one – has declined from about 20 per cent to under 11 per cent with the expansion. But the CSC also closed three institutions, including the infamous Kingston Penitentiary, taking 1,000 cells out of the system.

“With all of that churn in the system, all of this construction, building new cells, decommissioning other cells, you still have a problem matching capacity to need,” Sapers said.

Prison population pressures

Overcrowding remains a problem, especially at medium-security prisons in the Prairies and women’s facilities across the country, Sapers said.

“We still have massive overcrowding in the reception centres, the specialized units that receive newly sentenced inmates,” he added.

And the number of inmates did climb about 10 per cent, roughly 1,500 prisoners, in the Harper years, but for a different reason.

“The thing is those individuals are now staying longer before their first release,” Sapers said. “So in terms of incarceration years, it’s just not how many people are coming in but it’s how many people are coming out.”

University of Ottawa criminologist Justin Piché said the population pressure is a legacy of Conservative attitude towards punishment, a desire to send more people to prison for longer periods.

The Harper government made it harder for many offenders to apply for parole. It eliminated accelerated parole review for first-time non-violent offenders that previously enabled some to be released after serving one-sixth of their sentences, Piché said. The government also appointed people to parole boards who reflected its views, he said. Legislation sets full-time appointments for up to 10 years, part-time three years, though a Parole Board of Canada spokeswoman said full-time appointments generally are for five years.

“From what I’m hearing, the concurrence rates – that is the rate that CSC makes its recommendations for parole to the parole board and then the parole board listening to their recommendations — is at an all-time low,” Piché said.

However, the board said in an email day-parole concordance (or concurrence) rates have actually increased to 89 per cent from 82 per cent in the last 15 years, while full-parole rates have been “fairly stable.” For the most recent period of fiscal year 2015-16, the board agreed with CSC’s recommendation to either grant or deny full parole in 90 per cent of cases.

Also read: Should inmates fed up with prison be allowed the right to die?

Sapers said significant policy changes by the previous government set up “choke points” in the parole system. The timing of hearings was delayed and the interval between a denied parole bid and a new application was increased. More applications that might have been subject to parole hearings were instead handled via file reviews by parole boards.

And Sapers said parolees were subject to an increased list of special conditions more likely to result in them being re-incarcerated, such as stringent reporting requirements for those living in remote communities.

“From my perspective some of those conditions actually set people up for failure,” he said.

The parole system has become increasingly irrelevant, he said.

“Most releases from penitentiary now occur either at warrant expiry [end of the full sentence] or their statutory release date. In other words the parole board is not involved at all,” Sapers said.

Parole system problems

A report last year by the Auditor General of Canada underscored Sapers’ assertion.

“This marginalization of conditional-release decision-making has really been more responsible for the growth in the prison population than have new admissions because of criminal law change,” Sapers said.

Many of the inmates being kept in prison can be managed well under parole supervision, he said, and at a much lower annual cost — $30,000 per parolee compared with $108,000 per prison inmate (double that for women).

For its part, the CSC indicated the thread is shifting. In an email to Yahoo Canada News, a spokeswoman pointed out the CSC’s 2015 statistical review shows a three per cent decrease in the inmate population in 2014-15 after several years of growth. The review also charts an increased percentage of inmates released on day or full parole in the last two years.

Also read: Overcrowded jails cause problems inside Canadian correctional system

Sapers said he’s heartened by Trudeau’s instructions to his justice, public safety and indigenous affairs ministers via their mandate letters that will affect the administration of corrections. They include Wilson-Raybould’s review of the criminal justice system, addressing the high number of incarcerated aboriginal people, reducing the use of solitary confinement and implementing the coroner’s recommendations in the prison death of teenager Ashley Smith.

“I would say that I’m encouraged by those signals and as with others I’m waiting to see how those instructions are put into action,” he said.