The Will to Change: Lessons from Canada's Successful Decarceration of Youth

By Webster, Cheryl Marie; Doob, Anthony N. et al. | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Will to Change: Lessons from Canada's Successful Decarceration of Youth


Webster, Cheryl Marie, Doob, Anthony N., Sprott, Jane B., Law & Society Review


Political will is a renewable resource. The solutions are in our hands. We just have to have the determination to make them happen.

- Al Gore

Introduction

Within the context of western countries that have witnessed (in some cases, dramatic) increases in imprisonment rates over the last half century, Canada constitutes an anomaly. Restraint in the use of the criminal justice system generally and in the recourse to incarceration in particular has been part of Canadian criminal justice culture for many decades (Webster and Doob 2007, 2018). The result has been relatively stable adult incarceration rates since the 1950s. This long-term stability contrasts dramatically with Canada's closest comparators. Since 1980, Canada's overall imprisonment rate vacillated between a low of 92 (1980) and a high of 116 (1994) per 100,000 residents. In contrast, levels of incarceration in England/Wales nearly doubled from 85 (1980) to 153 (2011) and those in the United States more than tripled from 222 (1980) to 756 (2008) (Webster and Doob 2018).

While Canada's stability in imprisonment has garnered international attention (e.g., Tonry 2013), Canada's real "criminological fame" (at least from a national perspective) may ironically lie in the dramatic, yet virtually unnoticed, decline in youth, imprisonment between the mid-1990s and 2015. An average of 3825 youths (aged 12-17) was serving custodial sentences in 1997/8.1 In 2015/16, it had decreased to 527-an 86 percent reduction. The rate of (sentenced) youth imprisonment dropped from 157 youths per 100,000 youths in the population to 23.2 Notably, a 2003 legislative change only partially explains this decline.

A comparison with Canada's adult system makes the point more vividly. Looking at total imprisonment (sentenced + pretrial), the youth imprisonment rate went from 192 per 100,000 youths in 1997 to 51 in 2015-a 73 percent reduction. In contrast, an average of 109.4 adults per 100,000 residents was in Canada's prisons in 1997. In 2015, this rate was essentially unchanged. Figure 1 displays these divergent trends.

Given concerns about higher-than-optimal imprisonment rates, Canadian youth justice takes on wider relevance. Paralleling the proliferation of theories offered to explain America's "imprisonment binge" (e.g., Ruth and Reitz 2003; Tonry 2004), American scholars have proposed various mechanisms to reduce incarceration (Tonry 2014, 2017). Notably though, few analyses exist of successful decarceration attempts.

Arguably the best understood case is Lappi-Seppalä's (2000, 2007, 2012) work on Finland's reduction in adult imprisonment from 150 per 100,000 residents in 1960 to 60 in 2000. This change occurred largely because Finland-a Nordic country- found in the 1950s that its incarceration rate was dramatically higher than those of its neighbors. This perceived disgrace (Lappi-Seppaäläa 2000) initiated a four-decade effort to reduce imprisonment that ensued as a result of conscious, long-term, and systematic criminal justice policy with judicial support.

Similarly, the Dutch adult prison population decreased from approximately 70 to 20-25 inmates per 100,000 residents between 1945 and 1973. Downes and Van Swaaningen (2007) identified several immediate interacting factors contributing to this decarceration. More broadly, the suffering of members of the Dutch underground in German prisons during World War II encouraged the recognition that prisons should be governed by minimalist and humane policies.

Both the American state of California and the Canadian province of Alberta also experienced substantial decreases in incarceration rates. Between 1968 and 1972, Governor Ronald Reagan proudly presided over a 34 percent drop in adult imprisonment rates (Gartner et al. 2011) while Ralph Klein (Alberta's Premier) enabled a similar reduction (32 percent between 1993 and 1997) in Alberta's provincial adult incarceration rate (Webster and Doob 2014). …

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