More prisons won’t improve public safety: MCC

“Spending more money on bricks and mortar will not create safer communities,” says James Loewen

October 14, 2010 | Web First
Gladys Terichow, writer | MCC Canada

 Spending billions on more prisons in Canada won’t create safer communities, says a spokesperson for Mennonite Central Committee.

“Spending more money on bricks and mortar will not create safer communities,” said James Loewen, coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) restorative justice programs in Canada. “It is people supporting people that reduce crime—it is not bricks and mortar.”

As part of the federal government’s criminal justice strategy, Canada’s prison population is expected to increase and spark a wave of new prison construction. Although the true financial cost of the initiative is still being debated, the cost of new construction, expanding existing prisons and staffing will be in the billions of dollars.

Studies have consistently shown that the relevancy of prisons as a response to all crime in Canada is very small, said Loewen. It is estimated that most criminal offences are not reported to police and in a given year only 1.2 per cent of all criminal incidents result in custodial prison sentences. More than 95 per cent of prisoners in Canada are eventually released and return to the community.

Loewen urges the government to redirect its spending on “new priorities” that increase public safety through reducing the circumstances which give rise to criminal behaviour.

“Let’s spend the money on what works,” he said. Canada’s justice system focuses almost entirely on those who harm others—the offenders, he added.

“We need to respond to victims of crime. You will be hard pressed to find anyone in our communities who have experienced a meaningful response to their victimization, and some of these become offenders themselves.”

Public safety, he said, can be increased through investing money and resources in community-based programs that support victims of crime, hold offenders accountable for the crimes they have committed and help prisoners and ex-prisoners reintegrate into the community.

Crime can also be reduced through supporting crime prevention initiatives that tackle root causes of criminal behaviour and address conditions that could lead to criminal behaviour.

Loewen said more resources are needed to respond to the needs of children and youth who have witnessed or experienced family violence. He would like to see more support for community drop-in centres, stay-in-school initiatives and programs for parents.

The average cost of maintaining a female offender in a federal prison is $348,810 a year and the average cost of maintaining a male inmate in a maximum security prison is $223,687. There are currently almost 14,000 federal prisoners serving sentences of two years or more in 57 federal penitentiaries.

These costs, he said, can be drastically reduced and public safety significantly increased if the focus of Canada’s legal and justice systems was on restorative justice, instead of punishment.

Restorative justice is an approach to justice that puts the emphasis on the wrong done to a person as well as on the wrong done to the community. Victims are given an active role in a dispute and offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions.

“Creating safer communities is about more than punishing or warehousing a tiny percentage of people who have done bad things,” he said.

MCC in Canada supports a range of restorative justice initiatives including prisoner visitation programs, Victim’s Voice which provides support and resources to crime victims, and Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) which works with sex offenders released into the community after serving their time.

These programs work, said Loewen. For example, a study by Correctional Service of Canada shows that the CoSA model has resulted in the following:
* 83 percent reduction in sexual recidivism
* 73 percent reduction in all types of violent recidivism
* 71 percent overall reduction in all types of recidivism in comparison to matched groups of offenders who did not have a CoSA.

Similar results have been observed in Great Britain where the Canadian innovation of CoSA has been replicated.More prisons won’t improve public safety: MCC

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The time has come to see the present system of incarceration (especially in unsanitary and unsafe jails) as inhumane, cruel and most importantly ineffective. In fact some of the worst crimes have been committed from released prisoners. We need to see criminals as disadvantaged...emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. These people often have come from a background of poverty, neglect and abuse. Many of them have suffered abuse in he most abhorrent of ways, often as children.

We need to bring in programs that restore these individuals to emotional and spiritual wellness. As much as possible, keeping the out of jail should be the goal. If jail is required, then it should be as short a sentence as possible. Restorative justice programs such as the CoSA model that markedly decrease recidivism should be used in appropriate cases.

When jail is felt necessary, then the personal safety of that prisoner should be assured. Prison officials and government agencies that oversee prisons should be held accountable for the safety of every prisoner. When a prisoner is placed in custody, there is no place for them to run away...their safety is dependant on the prison officials who house them. Every prisoner should be able to report any assaults or threats to them without fear of retaliation. No prisoner should be forced to join a gang of be required to bring in drugs in order to avoid assault or rape.

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