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Canada's Punishment Agenda

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Issue: 84 Section: Accounts Geography: Canada Canada Topics: police, Prisons

August 3, 2012

Canada's Punishment Agenda

Omnibus crime bill will mean more prisons and more prisoners

by Dawn Paley

Photo: EPIC (end the prison industrial complex)

MONTREAL—If you grow pot at home for personal use, here’s a tip: keep it to five plants or fewer.

Come November, getting caught growing between six and 200 marijuana plants deemed to have been produced for the purpose of trafficking will trigger a mandatory minimum of six months in jail. The maximum sentence for growing upwards of five plants will also double, to 14 years in prison.

These are just a couple of examples from a gamut of changes to Canada’s Criminal Code under Bill C-10, which the feds have dubbed the “Safe Streets and Communities Act,” commonly known as the Omnibus Crime Bill.

“Bill C-10 will require new prisons; mandate incarceration for minor, non-violent offences; justify poor treatment of inmates and make their reintegration into society more difficult,” reads a critique of the legislation prepared by the Canadian Bar Association, which represents more than 37,000 jurists in Canada. “Texas and California, among other jurisdictions, have already started down this road before changing course, realizing it cost too much and made their justice system worse.”

Bill C-10, which the lawyers' group says will change Canada’s entire approach to crime at every stage of the justice system, was approved in March. From policing to wait periods between parole applications, changes linked to C-10 are being phased in through to the end of 2012. The bill also gives border guards discretion in the granting of work permits to migrants they deem to be "vulnerable to abuse or exploitation."

“The government keeps talking about how this is an agenda to address victimization,” said Justin Piche, an Assistant Professor in Criminology at the University of Ottawa. “In my view this is a punishment agenda, and should be viewed accordingly."

Piche’s research focuses on prisons and prison construction in Canada, and he predicts C-10 could trigger a new wave of prison construction in Canada.

“In the Canadian context, the provinces and territories have built or are in the process of building 22 new prisons and 17 additions to existing facilities since 2008 that added over 6,000 new prison beds at a construction cost of nearly $3 billion,” Piche told The Dominion. “These prisons were built in a context where provincial and territorial governments were trying to largely address the remand demand, the surge in the proportion of remand prisoners that they were housing in the last decade and a half.”

The majority of the 24,000 adults who are in prison on a given day in Canada are remanded prisoners, meaning that even though they haven't been convicted, the courts have ordered that they be held in jail while awaiting a court appearance. The number of adults in remand has been steadily climbing since the 1980s. “In 2009/2010, adults in remand accounted for 58 per cent of the custodial population while those in sentenced custody comprised the remaining 42 per cent. Ten years ago, the proportions were reversed, at 40 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively,” reads a document prepared last year by Statistics Canada.

The rise in people held under remand is connected to the current wave of prison construction and expansion, but new moves to implement mandatory minimums could lead to filling up the very provincial and territorial prisons built supposedly to prevent overcrowding because of remanding.

“What we’re seeing in terms of the mandatory minimums, more of them being introduced, particularly in C-10, [is that] a lot of them are going to have an impact on the provincial and territorial prisons, which may trigger a new subsequent wave of prison construction,” said Piche.

Mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics possession is one of the most controversial elements of the Conservatives’ Crime Bill, because it copies similar legislation in some US states that has been shown to increase the amount of prisoners without decreasing the supply of drugs.

“Bill C-10 is solidifying trends over the past decades with CSC [Correctional Services Canada], and will result in more people being imprisoned for more time,” according to Marie Dennis*, a prisoner solidarity activist based out of Montreal. “At the end of the day Bill C-10 doesn’t change that much for people in terms of people who are already inside, especially with life sentences, but what it does is solidify into law certain practices that have already been in place, which makes it harder for those practices to change at all if you have a slightly liberal warden or something like that.”

However, there are still a few important ways C-10 will impact people who are currently imprisoned, as well as those who are on parole. Waiting periods for people denied parole to re-apply will jump from six months to one year, ensuring more people will spend a longer time in jail.

“One thing that does change that hasn’t been in the law before is that now if you are on parole, the government can put electronic bracelet on you, in terms of tracking where you’re going and trying to figure out exactly where you’ve been,” Dennis told The Dominion. “That wasn’t something they were able to do before, [something] that has been written into Bill C-10, that a lot of people don’t know about.”

*Marie's name has been changed at her request. Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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