Jail-time not the answer for many offenders

Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have us believe that his government's hard-knuckled approach to crime is making Canada a safer place. His government has new laws on the table that would put more people behind bars by introducing mandatory minimum prison terms and preventing early parole. In a recent speech Harper promised to continue pursuing his “tough on crime" agenda by “getting the bad guys out of circulation for a while" even if it means building more prisons.

But many Canadians aren't convinced that sending more people to jail for longer periods of time will make anyone safer. Before I explain why not, let me introduce David.

David was in his early 20s, bored and unemployed when he got caught selling cocaine. He was arrested, charged and released with a promise to appear in court. Two months later he found out his girlfriend was pregnant.

“I figured it was time to shape up," David told me. “I realized I couldn't be father and a drunk at the same time." He quit doing drugs, cut back on his drinking and started taking accounting classes. By the time he appeared before a judge to receive his sentence he had a one-year-old son, an accounting certificate and a full-time job.

“[The judge] still felt it was necessary for me to repay society through incarceration," David said. He was sentenced to 15 months at a medium security prison in Beausejour, Manitoba.

In jail David put on his best behaviour and steered clear of angry inmates itching for a fight. All week he looked forward to the single hour he was allowed to spend with his girlfriend and family members.

Five months later, after serving a third of his sentence, David was released. Incredibly, his former boss let him have his accounting job back despite his criminal record. But other guys David had gotten to know in jail didn't fare so well. One was back behind bars within a week. A few tried to convince David to join them selling drugs or launching fraud schemes.

“Going to jail doesn't help at all," says David. “You're in there and you've got nothing to do all day. All you hear about is how other people made all this money before they got in there and how easy it was before they got caught....Lots of people are young and they don't have kids and they don't have any obligations so they don't care if they get caught.

“My goal was to be a father to my son."

David's story illustrates better than a page of statistics how legislation like Bill S-10�"which seeks to introduce mandatory minimum penalties for those caught dealing drugs�"won't really help.

Prisons do one thing well: they ensure that offenders don't commit crimes against the public while they're locked up. What they don't do well is help transform criminals into law-abiding citizens or deter people from committing crimes in the first place.

In 1999 researchers at the University of New Brunswick found that the more time a person spent in jail the more likely he or she was to reoffend.

Last fall the U.S.-based PEW Research Centre released an extensive study on the effects of incarceration. The study shows that children who have a parent behind bars are much less likely to finish school, get a job or earn an adequate income.

“Prison terms do harm to inmates, children and communities without reducing crime, without making communities safer," says Lorraine Berzins. Berzins works for the Church Council of Justice and Corrections, an ecumenical organization founded 39 years ago by 10 denominations that include Anglicans, Catholics, Mennonites and Baptists.

In December the council sent Harper a sharply worded letter opposing his prison-based approach to justice. Instead it called for more community-based alternatives such as well-supervised probation, bail options, supportive housing and restorative justice programs.

“The vision of justice we find in Scripture is profound and radically different from that which your government is proposing," the letter says. “We are called to be a people in relationship with each other through our conflicts and sins, with the ingenious creativity of God's Spirit to find our way back into covenant community. How can we be that if we automatically exclude and cut ourselves off from all those we label 'criminal'?"

Jails do serve a purpose. Some violent offenders need to be contained to keep the public safe. But in Canada only 22 per cent of inmates in provincial jails, and 69 per cent of inmates in federal penitentiaries are violent offenders. The rest are people like David�"imprisoned for non-violent crimes.

Canada's prisons are already overcrowded. Instead of spending billions of dollars on building new jails the government should spend that money on well-established but underfunded community-based alternatives�"programs that are proven to be more effective at rehabilitating people.

Harper's justice isn't really tough on crime; it's tough on people like David, tough on children and tough on communities. That's a tough pill to swallow.

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