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September 6, 2004 - The Edmonton Journal (CN AB)

Does Hard Time Prevent More Crime?

The U.S. Incarceration Binge Has Created the Hangover That Experts Predicted

By Dan Gardner

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When Anne McLellan, the minister of public safety, agreed to speak to the annual conference of the Canadian Professional Police Association, she had to know what she would hear. For years, the CPPA has complained to any politician or journalist who would listen that sentences are too light, prisons too soft and paroles too easily granted.

But the CPPA's predictable complaints were given poignancy by a recent murder allegedly committed by a resident of a halfway house in Vernon, B.C., which would be the third homicide committed by a resident of that facility. After meeting the CPPA last week, the minister had a measured response. No, McLellan said, Canada's prisons are not "Club Feds," as the CPPA likes to say. But "we need to take a serious look at some part of our parole system, how our corrections system operates and whether or not the commitment to public safety is always there."

That's a reasonable step, but the scrutiny should be broad. No system is perfect. None will eliminate crime and tragedy. So a "serious look" requires that the status quo be compared to alternatives, and since the systems' critics -- notably the CPPA, the Conservative party and some tub-thumping journalists -- are demanding the introduction of "tough-on-crime" policies, the obvious comparison is to the country that invented those policies and implemented them in the 1980s and 1990s: The United States.

Such a comparison would also be timely. There have been major developments in the U.S. recently -- developments that may startle any Canadian who thinks handcuffs and hard time are the solution.

The American tough-on-crime revolution of the last 25 years has created justice systems that have a simple, clear idea at their core: Pain.

Criminals must suffer not only because it is just that they do so but because suffering will improve their behaviour. Make the sentences long enough, make the prisons harsh enough, and cons will be scared straight. American prisons are still called correctional institutions but in most the theory and practice are no more sophisticated than the beatings cruel owners give misbehaving dogs.

With pain the focus of corrections, anything that lessens pain is frowned on. Thus day parole, which allows inmates to work at a job outside prison, has been abolished. Prisoners are held much longer before they can get full parole and almost one in five prisoners is "maxed out" -- held until the sentence expires, then simply let go.

Halfway houses have been cut back -- just seven per cent of prisoners now pass through one. And post-release support in getting an apartment or a job is rare.

No question: American criminals have good reason to be afraid.

And yet they haven't been scared straight. In 1995, the governor of Virginia complained that three out of four violent crimes were committed by repeat offenders, so he passed a package of ferocious reforms. Nine years later, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, repeat offenders commit three out of four violent crimes in Virginia.

Similar failures can be found across the U.S. A massive federal study of prisoners released in 1994 found that more than two-thirds of prisoners were re-arrested within three years. This was actually a higher recidivism rate than a similar study had found a decade earlier.

Recognize the Real Problems

That is what experts warned would happen. The basic problem is that most criminals are not the evil geniuses of popular imagination. In fact, most criminals are a mess. They have sub-average IQs. Often, they are functionally illiterate and their job skills are terrible. They are impulsive and thoughtless. They are mentally ill. They have fetal alcohol syndrome. They are addicted to alcohol or drugs. They come from broken homes where instead of positive social skills they learned destructive habits. And they spend their time hanging around others just like them.

These are what experts call "criminogenic" factors -- the influences that usually get criminals into crime in the first place. If they don't change, neither will the criminal. It doesn't matter how scared an ex-con may be of going back to prison, or how much he may want to stay on the straight and narrow, the criminogenic factors will draw him back to bad situations, stupid choices, and more crime.

Whatever its faults, the Canadian correctional system at least recognizes these realities. In fact, all the elements of the system most reviled by critics -- "Club Feds," parole, halfway houses -- were created to try to deal with them.

In contrast, the American model does nothing to help prisoners lead a law-abiding life. That's why it is failing so miserably.

Increasingly, the costs of that failure are forcing American officials to admit there are critical problems. State prisons alone cost $30 billion US to run and with most state governments facing serious budget crises, they simply cannot afford to keep the 600,000 prisoners released annually on a treadmill.

And so, for the first time in a generation, American officials are not talking abut hurting prisoners but helping them. "We know from long experience," said President George W. Bush in the State of the Union address in January, "that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison." The title of the Second Chance Act, now pending before Congress, expresses the new sentiment. The act will provide only modest funding for prisoner aid but the very fact that Congress -- an institution that has seen nothing but tough-on-crime grandstanding for 20 years -- would even talk about second chances suggests substantial change is underway.

Reforms are pushing ahead in state capitals across the U.S., particularly the expansion of parole. "We've always thought that the worst thing you can do is have someone locked up forever and then spit them out," a Virginia corrections official told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Maybe people are finally starting to get smart."

One of the biggest changes was just approved in California, a state where a 2003 report found 10 per cent of released prisoners are homeless, half are illiterate and 80 per cent are unemployed. New legislation requires correctional officials to evaluate prisoners' educational and "psycho-social" needs on entry and create a correctional plan to ensure they get the help they need to lead lawful lives after release.

It's an excellent idea. And it's Canadian: It has been the cornerstone of our federal correctional system for more than a decade.

I don't want to overstate the degree of change going on in the U.S. -- most Americans' remain devoted to punishment. Nor do I wish to suggest that the Canadian system is without serious flaws. But with American governments discovering the limitations of pain and looking north for alternatives, it would be absurd for Canadians to follow the advice of the CPPA and look south for a model of justice.

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