Photo: Jail Cell by Andrew Bardwell (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Conservatives have a long history of trying to kill Canada’s system of gradually reintegrating people into the community at the end of a prison sentence. Today, Prime Minister Harper pledged to take another kick at the can, saying he planned to eliminate presumptive statutory releases for certain classes of offenders. This shows either a total ignorance of how statutory release works or a cynical willingness to stoke voters’ fears in the lead-up to an election.
Most people in prison will eventually return to living with the rest of us. Those sentenced to two years or more in a prison and who have not been granted parole, a sadly growing category, are normally released after serving 2/3 of their sentence under conditions that are monitored by a parole supervisor. This gradual, controlled re-entry into the community maximizes public safety. The alternative is to hold people in prison until the last day of their sentence and then release them unconditionally into the community with no transition period. There may be some satisfaction for the vindictive in such an approach, but it does not make anyone safer.
Under the current system, if correctional authorities believe that an inmate is likely to commit a serious act of violence, a sexual offence involving children or a serious drug offence if released on conditions, they make a recommendation to the Parole Board to deny release. The Parole Board can order that an offender who poses such a risk remain in prison until the end of his sentence. Because prisoners who are likely to commit another serious offence are already denied early release under the existing scheme, Harper’s changes would only affect prisoners who would have been found unlikely to commit another serious offence.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Harper’s proposal is the disproportionate impact it will have on Aboriginals. The Office of the Correctional Investigator reports that the decreasing availability of parole has overwhelmingly impacted First Nations inmates. In 2013-2014, more than 80 percent of releases involving Aboriginal offenders were statutory releases. Doing away with this process will mean more Aboriginal people spending longer in prison, exacerbating a problem the courts have been grappling with for more than 15 years.
If the Harper government cared about making Canadians safer as opposed to scoring cheap political points, it would invest in programming and treatment within prisons and an effective system for progressively reintegrating offenders into the community under supervision. But I won’t be holding my breath.