On March 2, the Pew Center on the States, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, released a report on the staggering growth of the American correctional system.
Entitled One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, the report noted that “sentencing and release laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s put so many more people behind bars that last year the incarcerated population reached 2.3 million and, for the first time, one in 100 adults was in prison or jail.”
It also cited the tremendous increase in the number of people on probation or parole, such that “combined with those in prison and jail, a stunning 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent, is under some form of correctional control.”
Why is this relevant to Canada?
“We only need to go south of the border and see a nation that enacted mandatory minimums related to drug offences from the mid-1980s on,” criminologist Susan Boyd told the Georgia Straight. “It didn’t reduce violence and drug use. So here we are saying, ”˜We’re going to do this.’ ”
Boyd—an associate professor at UVic and research fellow at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.—was referring to the reintroduction in Parliament by the Conservative government of a bill that proposes mandatory minimum jail sentences for drug offenders.
If passed into law, Bill C-15 would, among its other provisions, throw people caught with one marijuana plant into the slammer for a minimum of six months. If growing a single plant is done on a property that belongs to another person or in an area where it may present a hazard to children, minimum jail time is nine months.
Worse, the bill seeks to increase the maximum penalty for this particular offence to 14 years.
Vancouver’s so-called Prince of Pot, Marc Emery, who is fighting extradition on charges of selling marijuana seeds to American growers, is a potential U.S. prison statistic.
Emery was handing out leaflets condemning drug prohibition, along with his wife, Jodie, on the south side of the city when the Straight asked him about Bill C-15. “Anything that puts more people in jail for drugs is going to fill prisons,” he said. “It’s a very expensive and failed policy that will only bring us more misery.”
The Pew Center on the States report pointed out that many states in the U.S. “appear to have reached a ”˜tipping point’ where additional incarceration will have little if any effect on crime”.
In Washington state, which shares a border with B.C., the report stated, “from 1980 to 2001, the benefit-to-cost ratio for drug offenders plummeted from $9.22 to $0.37.
“That is, for every one dollar invested in new prison beds for drug offenders, state taxpayers get only 37 cents in averted crime,” it noted. “An updated analysis from 2006 found that incarceration of offenders convicted of violent offenses remained a positive net benefit, while property and drug offenders offered negative returns.”
Conservative Abbotsford MP Ed Fast deflected criticism that mandatory jail times haven’t worked in the U.S.
“First of all, on the issue of deterrence there’s contradicting evidence,” Fast told the Straight. “I don’t base my support for the legislation on the deterrent effect. I base it on the prophylactic effect of the legislation. Prophylactic means taking repeat, violent offenders out of our communities for longer periods of time.”
Bill C-15 is a reincarnation of Bill C-26, which the Conservatives introduced in November 2007.
In February 2008, a few months after Bill C-26 was tabled in Parliament, Boyd started sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper a weekly letter in an attempt to educate the Conservative leader about harm reduction and drug regulation.
Boyd did this for a year, and she sent her 52nd and final letter in early February this year. Bill C-15 was introduced on February 27, a day after the Conservatives filed Bill C-14, which toughens penalties for gang-associated violent activities.
As an educator, Boyd has this to say about mentoring Harper: “The prime minister gets a failing grade on drug policy.”
The economics of prisons in Canada
> Total correctional-services expenditures in 2005-06: almost $3 billion
> Share spent on custodial services or prisons: 71 percent
> Associated policing and court costs in 2005-06: more than $10 billion
> Number of correctional facilities in Canada in 2005-06: 192
> Annual cost of incarcerating a federal female prisoner in
2004-05: $150,000 to $250,000
> Annual cost of incarcerating a federal male prisoner in 2004-05: $87,665
> Daily cost of incarcerating a provincial prisoner in 2004-05: $141.78
> Daily cost of alternatives such as probation, bail supervision,
and community supervision: $5 to $25