OTTAWA – Justice Minister Peter MacKay is forging ahead with plans to jail some prisoners for life despite the government’s acknowledgment that it has identified no need for such legislation, nor has it studied the possible impact of the decision.
In the Speech from the Throne last fall, the Conservative government pledged to “change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life.”
MacKay said the new changes would affect heinous criminals who commit multiple murders and sexual assaults against children, such as Paul Bernardo. At present, the serial killer and rapist is designated a dangerous offender and will most likely die in prison. The dangerous-offender designation allows the court to incarcerate criminals indefinitely, regardless of their original sentence.
Federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers told The Huffington Post Canada that he is not sure what the government is trying to do.
“In Canada, a life sentence already means a life sentence," he said.
“When a person is sent to prison under a life sentence, the only thing that gets them out of prison is an eligibility to apply for parole. Not everybody gets out.”
So why change the law? That’s what Liberal MP Wayne Easter wondered. He asked the federal government 44 questions covering topics such as:
- Are there perceived problems with the dangerous-offender designation?
- What is the recidivism rate among long-term offenders released on parole?
- And what are the financial costs of incarcerating convicts longer?
The Department of Justice responded that it “has not conducted such studies,” “does not conduct such studies,” “has no knowledge that such studies exist” and “is not in possession” of any information to answer Easter’s questions.
On the question of whether there is any evidence to suggest that the current dangerous-offender legislation is ineffective, the Department of Justice said it was “not aware of any such evidence.”
The department said it had “not undertaken specific research to determine whether dangerous-offender provisions are ineffective”.
Correctional Services Canada and the Department of Justice said they had undertaken no studies to find out whether removing parole would serve as a deterrent to people engaged in criminal activity.
When asked whether there was any evidence that offenders who are sentenced to life and later granted full or day parole are more likely than other offenders to reoffend while on parole, the Department of Justice declined to answer.
A seven-year study conducted by Correctional Services Canada found, however, that offenders on parole serving life sentences have a much lower rate of recidivism than offenders on parole serving shorter sentences. Offenders serving long indeterminate sentences were the least likely to re-commit violent crimes again and more likely to remain free of new convictions, the study found.
Offenders who are sentenced to life are considered to be serving an indeterminate sentence because they remain under federal control, even after they are released into the community.
“Overall, the results indicate that offenders serving indeterminate sentences have a lower recidivism rate than offenders serving determinate sentences,” researchers Sara L. Johnson and Brian A. Grant wrote.
Easter, who served as solicitor-general under former prime minister Jean Chrétien, said he was not surprised that the Conservatives ignored the evidence in their possession.
“Everyone should know that by now: This is a government that never makes decisions based on facts. It makes decisions based on ideology,” he said.
“Lifers tend not to reoffend,” Easter said. “The risk is very low.”
MacKay’s press secretary, Paloma Aguilar, refused to answer specific questions about the government’s plans.
“Canadians do not understand why the worst of the worst violent offenders, including those who murder innocent citizens, would ever be let out of prison,” she told HuffPost.
Although the government had a busy parliamentary agenda this spring, she said, the Tories are “reviewing options to ensure that a life sentence actually means incarceration for life.”
The Conservatives’ message might prove popular with Canadians, Easter said, but incarcerating convicts until the end of their natural life will only cost taxpayers more money.
“If you’re spending money in that area, it really means that you are not spending money on victims,” he said.
In 2011-12, the annual average cost of maintaining an incarcerated federal inmate was $117,788. In contrast, the annual average cost of maintaining a federal offender on parole was $35,101.
In their response to Easter, Correctional Services Canada and the Justice Department said they had carried out no studies on the financial costs of eliminating parole for those imprisoned for life.
Those who work inside Canada’s prisons worry that the Conservatives’ plans will also mean their institutions will become more violent.
“We’re very, very concerned, especially when our institutions are becoming overcrowded,” said Jason Godin, the national vice-president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
Work and educational programs that help rehabilitate prisoners are already being cut, so now there could potentially be more violent inmates with nothing to lose, Godin said.
“It scares the hell out of me actually.”
Sapers is also concerned that removing a chance for parole would eliminate any incentive for offenders to follow the rules or participate in correctional programming or treatment.
“If you create a situation of hopelessness in the prison, there is a risk of increased violence, self harm, [and] it affects the men and women who work there, and those who are serving alongside with them,” he said.
“I can’t see how that will be helpful for public safety.”
Canada’s $2.6-billion correctional system was designed to prepare convicts for their release to the community and not "to keep people in captivity forever and ever,” Sapers said.
If the government wants to change the system from one that reforms to one that punishes, Ottawa should be accountable, he added.
There are many studies on the issue of incarceration, Sapers said.
“I would hope that all of that data, all of that research, all that scholarship is being considered whenever legislation is being prepared.”