Trends in the Imprisonment of Women in Canada

By Gartner, Rosemary; Webster, Cheryl Marie et al. | Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Trends in the Imprisonment of Women in Canada


Gartner, Rosemary, Webster, Cheryl Marie, Doob, Anthony N., Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice


Increasing punitiveness is seen as a defining feature of late-modern liberal democracies by scholars who cite the growth in prison populations in the United States, England and Wales, the Netherlands, and New Zealand as evidence of this expansion in state punishment (see, e.g., Pratt 2007; Roberts, Stalans, Indemaur, and Hough 2003). However, detailed case studies of imprisonment in other countries demonstrate that this growth is much less general than is often claimed. As Tonry (2007: 1) notes, in his introduction to a volume featuring such studies, "Imprisonment rates have not risen substantially everywhere in the last 15 years." For example, Finland, Japan, Germany, Belgium, France, and Canada have experienced neither sustained nor dramatic escalations in their prison populations.

Indeed, in Canada, the imprisonment rate at both the federal and provincial levels has been relatively stable over the past 45 years (Doob and Webster 2006; Webster and Doob 2007) (see Figure 1). However, as Webster and Doob (2007: 312-313) note, their conclusion that "imprisonment rates have not changed dramatically since 1960" reflects the pattern for all offenders. Because males account for about 95% of Canada's prison population, (2) the trends shown in Figure 1 are driven largely by changes in the male prison population and, therefore, may tell us little about whether or how the female prison population has changed over time.

Many would argue that the stability described by these overall numbers masks a different and disturbing pattern for females. For example, Kim Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies recently stated to a Parliamentary Committee that "[w]omen are the fastest growing prison population [in Canada]" (Canada, House of Commons 2007; see also Balfour 2006a; Elizabeth Fry Society 2008). Boritch (2008: 406) agrees that "Canada has seen a significant increase in the punishment and incarceration of women over the past few decades," an increase that, according to Robert, Frignon, and Belzile (2007: 177), mirrors the growth "in many other western countries." While some see a different pattern--for example, Kruttschnitt and Gartner (2003: 16) conclude that "female imprisonment in Canada in the 1990s [did] not follow the upward trend observed in the United States and in England and Wales"--this appears to be a minority view. This paper is an effort to adjudicate between these competing claims by providing a detailed description of the scope of women's imprisonment in Canada since the early 1980s. Our goal is to determine whether the imprisonment of women in Canada has, as many argue, increased in scale, even as the overall imprisonment rate has not.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

We begin by considering possible reasons for the view that women's imprisonment has increased in Canada. We then describe the different ways in which imprisonment trends can be measured and argue that the common practice of measuring trends in women's imprisonment relative to men's imprisonment can lead to misleading conclusions. In the analyses that follow, we present a variety of data on women's imprisonment to determine whether there has been an increase in the scale of women's imprisonment in Canada, as some have claimed. We begin by examining, separately, trends in the sentencing of women to federal and provincial imprisonment. Here, we see some evidence of growth in women's imprisonment in federal institutions. However, those sent to federal institutions account for only about 2.9% of all sentenced women admitted to custody in Canada. We then analyse combined data on the sentencing of women to federal and provincial imprisonment, because our aim is to provide a picture of the total population of women in penal confinement in Canada, regardless of where and for what reasons they are in custody. In combining the federal and provincial data, we also follow the practice used by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics to calculate Canada's total imprisonment rate and to describe adult correctional services in Canada (see, e. …

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