Law C-25 is going to change the landscape of crime and justice in Canada, particularly in Indian country. Officially – and pompously – dubbed the Truth in Sentencing Act, the legislation eliminates the two-for-one time deduction that criminals until recently enjoyed for time served before their convictions.
This one piece of legislation alone is expected to add up to 4,000 inmates to the average daily population of almost 14,000 serving time in Canada’s federal penitentiaries (estimates for provincial correctional centres have not been made available, but there are already twice as many people serving time in provincial jails). If the rest of the Conservative government’s so-called “tough-on-crime” agenda is passed by Parliament, these figures will no doubt grow significantly.
And it’s going to cost money. A lot of money. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has estimated the costs of building new prison cells and hiring extra staff at $2 billion. But Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, has calculated that total prison costs on the federal side alone will more than double to $9.5 billion by 2015-16 from $4.4 billion this year.
All that money will go to fund an additional average of 159 days on federal sentences, raising the average time offenders spend in federal custody from 563 days to 722.
Setting aside, for the moment, the debate over the wisdom of keeping more law-breakers behind bars for longer periods, there is one inescapable conclusion: these changes will impact people of Indigenous descent in a vastly disproportionate scale. Already, Aboriginal Canadians account for one of every five federal inmates, but only 3% of the general population.
At the rate this figure is growing – in 1997 Natives accounted for 12% of federal inmates – it won’t be long before Canadian prisons represent for First Nations what the United States is for Black people. Experts say that, within a decade, Native inmates will form 25% of the incarcerated population in Canada.
Part of the reason for this growth is that fewer Aboriginal offenders win parole, meaning most serve out their full sentences. This is a recipe for recidivism, since it means newly freed ex-cons have no supervision when they first set foot back in the community, with all its pitfalls, lack of opportunity and temptations. At the same time, fewer accused Aboriginals are released on bail to await their trials, meaning the end of the two-for-one deal on time served before trial impacts them disproportionately.
It’s time for full disclosure. I work with the CSN union federation, which represents close to 7,000 federal correctional officers across Canada. Many observers would expect this group to be pleased with the “tough-on-crime” approach of lockin’ them up and throwing away the key.
The cliché is wrong. Correctional officers and other frontline staff are the first to pay when the inmate population loses hope, has fewer opportunities and is housed in dangerous, overcrowded conditions. They also have a vested interest in the successful rehabilitation of the people they are responsible for guarding, yes, but also for keeping safe. And both jobs are harder to do in crowded, tense facilities.
And, particularly for Native prisoners, the correctional officers tell me that successful rehabilitation is getting harder and harder to achieve in the new reality of Native gangs that now have completely changed the way federal prisons are managed, especially in western Canada, but across the country.
The reality is that federal pens are de facto gang recruitment centres, and have become universities of crime. I repeatedly hear correctional officers relate how inmates say that they have “graduated” when they finally get a federal sentence of two years or more behind bars.
And when these new “graduates” inevitably get back on the street, they are eager to put their new skills to use, guaranteeing that the spiral continues. And if they are not already a member of one of the many powerful, highly organized Native gangs before they go to federal prison, they almost certainly will be after getting out because the gangs offer protection and opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no bleeding-heart liberal when it comes to those who victimize others for their own pleasure and selfish gain. I don’t understand how people who call themselves leftwing (as I do) always seem to look at the perpetrators of crime as the “victim.” It seems to me that progressives should be helping the real victims, those who are robbed of their meagre resources and belongings, beaten-up, raped and murdered.
And, as these charitable do-gooders often forget when bemoaning the fate of Native offenders, their crimes are almost always committed against other Native people, though there are no well-funded organizations or professional spokespersons to lobby on their behalf.
That said, a hard-headed analysis must be made about whether these multi-billion-dollar investments in punishment will pay off in safer communities. All that money won’t be spent on childhood education or nutrition, economic opportunities or cultural initiatives – the kinds of things that might help young people avoid a life of crime. Instead, those who do fall on the wrong path will be kept there by a system that guarantees they “graduate” into hardcore criminality.
And in that sense, a bigger prison system is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, because more people in prisons means we will have more criminals, making a bigger prison system a necessary evil.