North America’s prisons are filled with too many prisoners who shouldn’t be there. We send people who aren’t serious threats into awful hellholes and they often come out worse. Most come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, suffer from mental health problems, troubled upbringings, past abuse and / or have substance or other addiction related issues. Putting them into deplorable living conditions that include violence, drugs, solitary confinement with very limited access to educational, rehabilitative and employment related doesn’t make them better and doesn’t prevent further crime.
I recently had a young client who spent a few months in an Ontario jail for low level drug trafficking. I wasn’t his lawyer for that case, but I was for his next one which involved a Break, Enter and Theft. He befriended some pretty bad guys during his first jail sentence. Prior to his new case coming to trial, he was found shot and murdered a few months ago. So much for the rehabilitative and deterrent effects of a jail sentence.
The US has the highest rates of incarceration in the world, something like 655 people per 100,000 (Canada is about 114 per 100,000). And, yet, the US still has the highest rates of crime and recidivism. The notions of “get tough on crime” and “long jail sentences will send a deterrent message” have proven ineffective.
In many European countries, different approaches are being taken, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration. Scandinavian countries have low prison populations and low rates of crime. Finland has a remarkable “open prison” concept which sees prisoners moved from closed prison to open prisons where they can interact and be part of a regular community before their sentences are complete.
In Canada, the average cost of keeping one person in prison for one year is reportedly about $100,000. If we tried new programs with 100 convicted persons who aren’t deemed serious threats to society (drugs and other non violent crimes, for example) and with the $10,000,000 that it would cost to incarcerate them for one year, spent that money on an approach geared towards helping them rehabilitate and reducing the risk of reoffending, we’d all be better off.
Critics often scoff at minimum security type settings or community-based programs as too soft and easy on the prisoner. But, isn’t being separated from your family and friends and having your freedom significantly restricted punishment enough? Do we have to destroy bodies, souls and minds as well?
All this makes me think of the mantra, “there but for the grace of God go I”, that many lawyers quietly say to themselves as they encounter the difficult personal circumstances of their clients. And it also reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a young law student to whom I suggested that the Crown Attorney’s office would be a great place for him to gather further experience in criminal law. He said, “I agree, but it’s definitely not for me, I wouldn’t ever want to send anyone to jail”. At the time, I smiled and laughed at his pure, uncomplicated and steadfast view. But upon further reflection … God bless him.