January 26, 2011
Crime, including violent crime, is on the decline in Quebec and the rest of Canada. And yet the federal penitentiary population is on the rise.
There’s an easy explanation for the apparent paradox. Tougher sentencing provisions in Canada are keeping more inmates behind bars for longer periods.
Two new pieces of federal legislation that took effect last year have created the need for more jail cells in federal penitentiaries -and as a result, the country’s penitentiary system is poised to undergo a major expansion.
This month, Shelly Glover, a Conservative MP from the Winnipeg area, came to the Quebec town of Cowansville to announce a $73-million expansion of federal penitentiaries there as well as in Donnacona, near Quebec City.
The two expansion projects are part of a Harper government plan to add 2,700 new “living units” in penitentiaries across the country. Since last October, construction of 1,868 new units has been announced, including 484 in Quebec. More announcements are expected in the coming months, with a federal election looming on the horizon and the Conservative Party looking to position itself as tougher on crime than the other federal parties.
The 2,700 new units, however, won’t be enough to satisfy the need to accommodate 3,828 more inmates because of the Harper government’s new crime bills.
The Correctional Service of Canada said it is going to accommodate the other 1,128 through more double-bunking in jail cells. At present, one in every 10 of Canada’s 13,500 federal inmates is being double-bunked.
Howard Spears, the federal correctional investigator, has warned that more double-bunking could increase social unrest in federal penitentiaries. Spears has also expressed concerns over the rising proportion of federal inmates who suffer from mental illness. Provincial governments keep fewer people in institutional psychiatric centres than they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Last year, two new pieces of Conservative anticrime legislation took effect.
One of those, Bill C-25, also called the Truth in Sentencing Act, has eliminated the old practice of courts considering one day of pre-trial detention as being worth two days of incarceration, for people ultimately convicted and sentenced of crimes. That alone means 3,445 more inmates by March 2014. The other crime bill, C-2, also known as the Tackling Violent Crime Act, has introduced new minimum sentencing for gun-related crimes. That will see an estimated 382 new inmates by March 2014.
Even without the two new pieces of federal legislation, the federal inmate population was still projected to grow by 10 per cent from 2009 to 2014 because of tougher sentencing provisions quietly introduced by Liberal governments before the election of the Harper Conservatives in 2006.
Pierre Landreville, a retired criminology professor from the Universite de Montreal and an expert on incarceration trends, said an average of 10 pieces of new federal legislation a year have been passed over the last two decades toughening sentencing provisions of the Criminal Code.
“One by one, they might not mean much, but taken together after 20 years they have added up,” Landreville said.
Jean-Claude Bernheim, president of the Prisoners Rights Office, said governments are always looking to promote themselves as tough on crime for electoral reasons, but he said the Harper government is now taking the posturing to a new level.