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The cart before the horse

While Statistics Canada reports that both the severity and incidence of crime continues to drop year after year across the nation, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association reports our jails are clogged, mostly with (assumed) innocent people awaiting trial.

Canadians are more safe in their homes and on our streets than we have been in a lifetime — and far more safe than polls reveal we think we are. Yet our prison population is at an all-time high.

Canada has more than 15,000 convicts in federal lockup, costing us more than $100,000 each per year to house. The federal budget for this has grown 40 per cent, to $2.6 billion, in just the last five years. And we are building more prisons, as if hell itself wouldn’t have them.

There is both a connect and disconnect between Canada’s dropping crime rates and our overpacked lockups.

All provincial and federal governments will eagerly take credit for dropping crime rates, citing almost-universal tough-on-crime policies. Of course crime is down, politicians will tell you — we’ve got the bad guys behind bars.

That may be the case, at least in part. But more thoughtful people who actually study crime and social policy will tell you things are more complicated.

That’s the disconnect. Long jail sentences do not actually relate to the fact there is less actual crime. The clogged jails, the double-bunking, the backlogs of court cases, the increases in mandatory sentences — all these things happen after the crime. Prison crowding has virtually a zero effect on preventing crime.

Or, as has increasingly become the case, after the alleged crime. On any given day, says a recent report from the civil liberties association, there are more people in jail in Canada who have not been convicted of a crime than there are actual convicts.

Canada has begun to use unattainable bail provisions applied by the courts as a first-tier prison system, absent of the messy process of obtaining convictions.

In one of those egregious sound-bite examples, the civil liberties association reported of a teen crime suspect being told he would go to jail if he did not make his bed when he was told him to. If he did not obey his mother explicitly, he would violate his bail provisions and be put behind bars. (Obviously, there’s more to that story than we’re being told, but we do not generally jail disobedient teens. Yet.)

Others are told that being five minutes late for an appointment with court officials is cause for bail to be revoked. Remember, these are people who are supposed to be presumed innocent.

Set aside the injustice of thousands of (assumed) innocent Canadians sitting in overcrowded jails waiting too long for a trial.

What happens later to those convicted and imprisoned likewise has less to do with justice than an un-Canadian government desire for vengeance — or simple exhaustion in social policy.

If prison populations are exploding, the numbers are being driven disproportionately by aboriginal people (especially aboriginal women) — a 75 per cent rise in visible minorities in the past decade, 80 per cent for aboriginal women.

A large number of these people have family abuse and sexual abuse in their history — 80 per cent for aboriginal women. About half of all federal inmates require mental health treatment each year.

Tough-on-crime supporters have used this for decades as a source of derision: “Your father didn’t love you, so we’ll have to excuse your drug addiction and robbery charge.”

That’s extremely funny — until you’re the person whose father was never around, your uncle raped you as a teenager, and nobody anywhere came forward to help you. Prison is where we send these people when they are left to deal with this on their own. Hilarious.

And dangerously costly. Despite the ballooning Corrections Canada budget, the federal government is cutting back on prison guard pay. Austerity within overcrowded prisons is not a good situation going forward.

And all this in a climate of declining crime rates.

Governments should be very grateful for the declining crime severity indexes. If our homes and streets were not indeed safer than they’ve been in decades, today’s policies on crime would have long ago created not just prisons, but gulags.

Canadians should be a lot more outraged about the injustices within our justice system.

Canada is supposed to use prison as a last resort, but we use it as a housing project for victims of family violence, abuse, mental illness and drug addiction.

Canada once used prison to punish people for something bad that they had done, so that they don’t do it again. Now we use prison as a place where we send people to get punishment that has nothing to do with the crime for which a sentence was imposed.

And often, before there is ever a trial.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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