Striking a Balance: A Strategy to Encourage Community Corrections in Canada. (CT Feature)
Daubney, David, Corrections Today
Author's Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Department of Justice of Canada.
In the mid-1990s, Canadian criminal justice policy-makers found themselves at a crossroads regarding the direction that sentencing and corrections policy should take. The late 1980s and early 1990s had witnessed a sharp growth in offender populations in Canada. According to a 1996 Ministry of Solicitor General report, between fiscal years (April 1-March 31) 1989-1990 and 1993-1994, the federal inmate population (those serving sentences of two years or more) had increased 21.5 percent, with an annual rate of growth of 8 percent in fiscal year 1993-1994. Canada's long-term average growth rate had been 2.5 percent per year. At those rates, predictions called for an increase in the federal inmate population of nearly 50 percent by 2004.
Provincial correctional institutions (housing offenders sentenced to up to two years) experienced average case-load increases of more than 10 percent between April 1990 and March 1995, according to Correctional Service Canada (CSC). In Western Canada, an extremely high proportion of provincial inmates and youths in custody were Aboriginal Canadians, including more than 70 percent in Saskatchewan. While forming only 2.8 percent of the general population, Aboriginal offenders comprised nearly 16 percent of federal penitentiary inmates. While the Canadian population as a whole was aging, Aboriginals were experiencing a high birth rate and forecasts called for this "baby boom" to increase the Aboriginal incarceration rate even more -- already a shocking 785 per 100,000.
In large part due to the disproportionate Aboriginal prison rates, Canada was incarcerating greater numbers of people per capita than most other developed countries. Comparative statistics placed Canada's number of inmates per 100,000 total population at 130, significantly higher than Western democracies, except the United States.
In 1995, CSC was double-bunking 25 percent of its inmates; 4,200 offenders were doubled-bunked that year compared to 1985, when there was no double-bunking. Predictions called for 5,000 additional beds by 2004, which would translate, even on a shared accommodation basis, to five to 10 new institutions.
Developing a Strategy
These forecasts caught the attention of the minister of finance who, in his 1995 budget, called on the solicitor general and the minister of justice, in consultation with their provincial counterparts, "to develop ... a strategy for containing the rate of growth of the inmate population and the associated corrections costs."
Ministers responsible for justice faced a choice: Shift toward a "crime control and punishment" policy or clearly articulate a strategy combining crime prevention, tough treatment of serious crime and greater use of community sanctions for low-risk offenders. They opted for the latter approach.
The 1995 speech by the governor general from the throne, opening the second session of the 35th Parliament of Canada, pledged that the government's criminal justice policy would deal sternly with high-risk, violent offenders, and at the same time, "develop alternatives to incarceration for low-risk offenders."
This called for a strategy that was comprehensive, focused and understood by the public. The government knew that encouraging public support of a more comprehensive, balanced approach to sentencing and corrections would be challenging given 1995 surveys showing that Canadians:
* underestimated sentencing severity;
* overestimated the amount of violent crime, which was about 10 percent;
* overestimated parole grant rates; and
* overestimated offender recidivism.
Although crime had been falling for several years, 77 percent of survey respondents that year believed it was increasing, with only 3 percent believing it was decreasing. …