Changes to Canada's justice system are putting the country in danger
// Colin Spensley

When most Canadians reflect on their country, the first things that spring to mind are not hardened criminals, murderers, rapists, nor extortion or violence. With what some call the “Americanization” of Canada’s justice system, however, many potentially unwelcome changes are on the horizon. The potential of a privatized prison system would increase the amount of federal money spent on prisons, as well as the number of non-violent offenders behind bars. Thus, Canada starts down a road to proven disaster.

Stats Don’t Lie, They Bend

Crime rates in Canada have been decreasing steadily since 1977, reaching a record low in 2007, dropping seven per cent from the previous year. Both youth and adult reported crime rates are falling, and overall rates have dropped 23 per cent since 2000. In Vancouver, all reported crimes have dropped by at least six per cent, other than homicide.

MacLean’s magazine first published their National Crime Rankings in 2006, listing cities based on their their crime ranking. Each yearly issue awards cities across Canada titles such as the “Murder Capital of Canada” or the “Sexual Assault Capital of Canada”. Although well-researched, these articles have been criticized for instilling a fear of crime in many Canadians.

“What Maclean's has done with its crime ranking is to spread fear among communities,” says John Anderson, professor of criminology at Vancouver Island University, in an interview with The Daily News.

A 2001 report by the Department of Justice revealed that the public’s concern regarding crime was growing, particularly in areas concerning child-abuse and gang-related crime, despite consistently dropping crime rates. The study concluded that “the public's fears remain unrelated to actual crime rates and potential for victimization, as perceptions of criminal activity and violence are not in tune with reality.”

In 1994, for example, 81 per cent of Canadians believed that criminal behaviour in general was increasing. In a 2012 poll, 46 per cent of Canadians responded that crime is on the rise, despite the aforementioned downward trend.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Currently, the Conservative government has put forward an omnibus crime bill to make several changes to the Canadian justice system. Made up of nine anti-crime bills that the Conservatives were not able to pass as a minority government, Bill C-10 was promised to be passed into law before the end of March.

Also known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, the bill is over 100 pages long, and covers drug possession, transferring Canadian offenders back to Canada, human smuggling, pardons, conditional sentences, sexual exploitation, young offenders, support for victims of terrorism, and mandatory minimum and maximum sentences. Bill C-10 was passed in the House of Commons in December after only one amendment, and moved on to be examined by the Conservative-dominated Senate. Last week the Senate submitted six amendments to the bill, and the final version is being put forward in the House of Commons to be approved, with only six hours of debate permitted.

Since its introduction last September, Bill C-10 has been heavily criticized. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association warns that the bill is sending Canada down a more dangerous path, rather than a safer one.

“Indeed, the research suggests that putting an individual in jail for longer will actually increase the likelihood of re-offending,” reads an article on the CCLA website. “What it will do is needlessly increase the number of people in prison, skyrocketing costs and imposing unjust, unwise, and unconstitutional punishments. This is exactly the kind of policy Canada doesn’t need.”

A huge point of contention regarding the bill is the new mandatory minimum and maximum sentences. The new maximum sentence of 14 years for cultivators of over 50 marijuana plants makes the penalty higher than that for rape or manslaughter, and the mandatory minimum sentences now apply to people who grow as few as six plants.

A high-profile U.S. advocacy group of current and former U.S. law enforcement officials called Law Enforcers Against Prohibition recently urged the Canadian government to reconsider their stance on marijuana sentencing: “We are … extremely concerned that Canada is implementing mandatory minimum sentencing legislation for minor marijuana-related offences similar to those that have been such costly failures in the United States.”

They explain, “These policies have bankrupted state budgets as limited tax dollars pay to imprison non-violent drug offenders at record rates instead of programs that can actually improve community safety.”

However, the Justice Minister Rob Nicholson stated in response that the Harper government has no intention of changing their stance on marijuana prohibition, and that they remain “committed to ensuring criminals are held fully accountable for their actions.”

Many people are worried about the consequences of this unwavering attitude: “Bill C-10 is following the US model with mandatory minimum sentences. This model leads to injustice,” says Capilano criminology professor Laurel Whitney. “It’s taking power away from judges and targeting the lower end of the drug industry.”

The CCLA also says that there is not enough evidence that supports mandatory minimum sentences as an effective deterrent for crime: “There is also little evidence to suggest that they will significantly impact sentences for the most serious offenders – who are already being sentenced to significant amounts of jail time by the judiciary,” they say. “Rather, they will handcuff the judiciary, preventing them from responding to unique facts and exceptional personal circumstances.”

Most of the amendments to the Canadian law model proposed by the omnibus crime bill involve punishment, rather than prevention.

“C-10 is a very large bill with many components to it, but there are a number of things we need to be aware of,” says SFU Professor of Economics Stephen Easton. “Increases in mandatory penalties for certain crimes which will raise the number of people in prisons. The cost of keeping people in federal prison is about $300 a day, which are significant costs.”

In addition, Whitney goes on to explain that the Canadian Correctional Institution has a budget of $3 billion, larger than that of the RCMP, and only two per cent of that goes to rehabilitation programs.

Welcome to Our Ultra Mega Super Maximum Security Prison, Enjoy Your Stay

Citizens of the United States of America have been living with what has been referred to as the “Prison-Industrial Complex” for almost 20 years now. Since 1995, the number of people imprisoned in the United States has almost doubled, from 1,585,586 to a staggering 2,193,798 in 2005.

Many factors have led to this drastic increase of imprisonment in America, including the “War On Drugs”, new mandatory minimum sentence laws for drug possession, and the belief that prison is a solution for underlying social issues. The average cost of keeping an American in prison is between $59,000 and $64,000 per year, all funded by American taxpayers.

Prison costs are funded publicly; however, all profits are distributed privately. In an essay entitled “The American Prison Industrial Complex – Investing In Slavery”, author Kobutsu Malone lists 117 companies and corporations who profit directly from prisons and the increase in incarcerations of the American people, including Version Telecommunications and ARAMARK Food Services.

In September of 2011, the construction or renovation of at least seven major Canadian prisons, as well as adding 576 beds to prisons across four provinces, was announced. This project was given a $32 million budget by the federal government. An additional 7,000 beds will be added in British Columbia, PEI, and Nunavut in the coming years with a budget of $4 billion.

The current B.C. prison system has 1,692 cells and approximately 2,655 inmates, with the average provincial prisoner costing tax payers $84,225 per year. With the addition of 7,000 beds, many C-10 skeptics are questioning where this excess federal funding will come from.


In Canadian prisons, a large population of inmates are of varying ethnic backgrounds, with Aboriginal people taking up a disproportionately high percentage. Though Aboriginal people make up only 3.75 per cent of the general Canadian population, they make up 18 per cent of the federal prison population.

In 2006, over 30 per cent of incarcerated women were Aboriginal, and in Manitoba 78 per cent of incarcerated men were Aboriginal. “We already have a very complex diversity of people in our prison and it’s very difficult to serve all their needs,” says Whitney. “By locking more people up, it will only get harder to help.”

Shawn Atleo, current national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says that Bill C-10 will make it more difficult for aboriginal youth to break the cycle of crime that they often find themselves in.

Atleo spoke to the Senate committee reviewing the bill, and told them, “The direction that this is heading in does not support the notion of First Nations creating safe and secure communities … Because the young people we are talking about right now, they are more likely to end up in jail than end up in school.”

The particular concern is that mandatory minimum sentencing will eliminate any alternatives to prison that First Nations people were previously allowed, including rehabilitation: “I don’t think you can ever avoid looking at the circumstances of an individual when determining what is the best thing to do in terms of addressing harms that have been inflicted,” said Atleo.

In the previously-mentioned report by the Department of Justice, it was found that “a bare majority of Canadians are in favour of a Native justice system. Support for this separate system has been increasing over the past eight years.”

Though Atleo did not specifically suggest an Aboriginal justice system, he said that “modifications to the present justice system cannot address the problems that exist … The First Nations governments and jurisdictions must be supported so we can do better by our young people.”


Once a prisoner’s sentence length is decided by a judge, their next task is to be rehabilitated by the Correctional System of Canada.

“I think it really does turn you into an animal,” says Greg Simmons, an inmate of 17 years, in an interview with the Toronto Star. “It makes you feel so unworthy and once you’re back on the street life has still gone on, but you haven’t gone on … Instead of making sentences longer, help us benefit from the sentence we have now. By making programs, and bringing in people who have succeeded on the outside,” says Simmons.

“In New York, more than half of state prison inmates get out within four years and return home,” says a study reported in the Toronto Star. “With difficulty finding a job and few services to ease their re-entry, a third are back in jail within three years, most for violating parole or probation.”

In 2007 Manitoba’s Correctional Institution reported at 75 per cent of inmates released were charged with another offence within two years of completing their sentence.

Whitney worries that the rise in prison numbers due to Bill C-10 will prevent funding for rehabilitation programs: “With over-population in prisons, you go into security mode and put all your resources into that,” she says.

However, rehabilitation programs have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing re-offense. For example, Norway’s Bastoy Prison allows inmates to live in a communal camp on an island, where they learn skills and are given responsibilities in running the facility, as well as comfort and free time. The emphasis is on allowing the inmates to live healthy, productive lives, thereby making it easier to remain rehabilitated upon their release. Though Bastoy is admittedly an extreme example of rehabilitation techniques, their alternative approach to crime punishment has produced the lowest re-offending rate in all of Europe.

"The biggest mistake that our societies have made is to believe that you must punish hard to change criminals," said Oeyvind Alnaes, a previous prison-governor of Bastoy. "This is wrong. The big closed prisons are criminal schools. If you treat people badly, they will behave badly. Anyone can be a citizen if we treat them well, respect them, and give them challenges and demands."

A 2005 report for Correctional Services of Canada found that 50 per cent of Canadians believed that prison conditions were too comfortable. Thirty-four per cent favored rehabilitation over punishment for the role of the correctional system, though 63 per cent of people believed that rehabilitation was possible for most offenders.

A report for the Solicitor General Canada found that incarceration produced a three per cent increase in recidivism, and a six per cent increase when the incarceration was for longer periods. According to Corrections Canada, previous offenders account for only 1.3 of every 1,000 violent offences, 0.7 of every 1,000 sexual offences, and 1.2 of every 1,000 drug offences, and “94 per cent of those released on day parole did not commit a new crime.” Though the public perception of parole is not favourable, the facts show that it is more successful at rehabilitation than keeping offenders incarcerated.


With the passing of Bill C-10 on the horizon, concern for the future of Canada is growing. American lawmakers are warning us not to repeat their mistakes, and ignoring them could potentially cost Canada billions of dollars. The new laws will also increase the number of prison inmates, putting society’s most vulnerable people at greater risk. 

Rather than looking to countries who have had success with alternative punishment practices, the Canadian government is imposing counterintuitive harsher crime laws, despite dropping crime rates. The public perception of the state of crime in Canada has been shown to be distorted, and without proper awareness, the bill will likely pass without proper review.

//Colin Spensley, columns editor
//Graphics by Jason Jeon

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com