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The tough-on-crime strategy has not made our communities safer

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Crime rates in Canada have been steadily declining for more than a decade, yet prison populations have been increasing in recent years. Commentators have attributed this disconnection between dropping crime rates and rising incarceration numbers to the Harper government's tough-on-crime strategy. Since 2006 the Harper Conservatives have implemented legislative and policy changes designed to "tackle crime" and "make communities safer."

To find out the on-the-ground impact of these changes, we interviewed 16 frontline workers in two provinces, Manitoba and Ontario. In their capacities as correctional, parole and probation officers, and as community-based counsellors, support workers and prisoner advocates, these workers have, altogether, over 200 years of experience to draw on. These findings are from our study released this week. Frontline workers told us that the tough-on-crime strategy has not made our communities safer. In fact, the Harper government has moved the country in the opposite direction by framing its policies on the basis of ideology, and "making people afraid of the boogeyman," rather than on evidence of what actually works to tackle crime.

Some of the Harper government's changes have not met their stated objectives. In 2009, legislation took away the two-for-one credit judges could grant for time spent in pre-trial custody. The government claimed this would unclog the system by discouraging those charged with an offence from remaining in remand custody until their court dates in order to get a reduced sentence. According to frontline workers, however, "the numbers didn't go down. In fact, they went up almost immediately." Currently, the majority of people held in provincial jails have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting their trial dates. Manitoba not only has the highest incarceration rate of all the provinces but also the highest percentage, at 66 per cent of adults in custody who are on remand. And our jails are overcrowded. As of May 2013, provincial facilities were at 126 percent capacity -- in spite of a 52 per cent increase in capacity since 2008 that has added 651 beds at a cost of $182 million.

The tough-on-crime strategy was implemented alongside the Conservative's 2012 Deficit Reduction Action Plan. The plan imposed $4 billion in cuts to federal government expenditures, including $295 million from Correctional Service Canada operations over three years by restructuring prisons, modernizing food services, streamlining case management, and charging inmates more for room and board and the use of phones.
These changes in the federal correctional system marked a shift from rehabilitating to warehousing people. As one worker commented, "They put us behind the eight ball. They've increased our populations then they cut the budgets. And when they cut the budgets, they cut a lot of programming." Frontline workers emphasized the importance of programming: "Prison doesn't leave you the way it took you. You're either better or you're worse. You can be more hardened, you can have some new strategies for crime, or you can be really desirous of turning things around….  Programming within the prison helps that." But much of this programming has been cut.

Federal budget cuts have led to waitlists for remaining programs, and programming previously provided by community professionals is now done in-house by program officers who don't have the same training and expertise. Education has also been affected. "We don't have an operating prison school system any more. A majority of it's gone to self-studies, which is 'Here's your book, here's your grade two test, and I'll come back and pick that up in a week.'"

Lack of access to programs means that federal prisoners cannot complete their correctional plans, a requirement for parole eligibility. Canada's Auditor General reports that fewer prisoners are being recommended for parole, even those deemed to be a low risk to reoffend. Keeping people in custody longer cost the federal correctional system an extra $91 million over four years. The majority of prisoners are being held until their statutory release date. As workers explained, if released late in their sentence, "instead of having a halfway house for temporary shelter and time to try to get a job or whatever, they sometimes leave the prison with no money and no place to stay." In these circumstances, people are more likely to return to crime as a survival strategy. In this way our communities are not being made safer.

Workers believe the tough on crime strategy and federal budget cuts have "made it much, much more difficult to settle in and do time." Anxiety and frustration levels, and the potential for violence to break out, increase as a result. The families of prisoners, who end up doing time along with them, have also been affected by the longer sentences, prison pay cuts, and less access to visits and telephones.

The changes have also affected those working inside the federal prisons. As one worker said, "These guys' living conditions are our working conditions. You're making our jobs much more difficult and dangerous." Another commented, "I give a lot of credit to a lot of people working in great difficulty in prison because they're working in a very negative climate." Given this climate, "the burnout is tremendous" and "the turnover has increased as the support decreases." Similarly, community workers are asking for transfers because of the lack of safety in doing their jobs.

Frontline workers characterize the tough on crime strategy as "one size fits all" designed with the dangerous few in mind but applied to everyone. Workers believe the strategy sets the community up for danger by keeping people in prison longer in overcrowded conditions and without effective programming, and by dismantling transitional supports that assist with community reintegration. Rather than tough on crime, they say we need to "get tough on rehabilitation." By providing people with the resources and supports they need to live productive and healthy lives, everyone will be safer. The so-called tough-on-crime approach is not making us safer.

Elizabeth Comack is a professor of sociology and a CCPA–MB research associate. Cara Fabre is a post-doctoral fellow and Shanise Burgher is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Manitoba.

This research is funded by the Manitoba Research Alliance through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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