01/28/2015 07:20 EST | Updated 03/30/2015 05:59 EDT

Fewer parolees falling off radar, stats show

The number of federal offenders who have slipped off the radar while on parole has decreased dramatically in the last decade, according to figures from the Correctional Service of Canada.

According to annual statistics on offenders who have gone unlawfully at large (UAL) while on conditional release, released to CBC News under Access to Information, reveal that incidents have dropped by nearly half since 2005.

Across the country, there were 1,166 offenders who went missing in 2013-14, way down from 2,237 who went UAL in 2004-05. And the positive trend is continuing: in the most recent eight-month period covered by released data, up to Nov. 24, 2014, there were only 579 incidents across Canada.

The Correctional Service of Canada sees it as a positive trend for public safety and credits the success to effective programs that correct criminal behaviour and reduce reoffending.

Support and training for parole officers and community-based initiatives have also helped with more successful transitions from prison to the street, according to spokeswoman Veronique Rioux.

"A number of monitoring strategies are used to minimize the number of offenders who go UAL and has put in place various measures to ensure the timely apprehension of UAL offenders," she told CBC News. "CSC has increased its capacity to contribute to public safety by strengthening its partnership with law enforcement agencies through the timely exchange of critical information."

'Positive trend' for public safety

The positive trend comes as the government drafts more tough-on-crime legislation, including a new penalty of a life sentence without chance of parole for the most heinous crimes.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney confirmed a new bill will be tabled by June, and it's expected to apply to the most serious category of murders, including the killing of uniformed officers and guards or that include brutal sexual assault.

Criminal defence lawyer Scott Cowan, who serves as regional director for the Criminal Lawyers' Association, said the statistics reflect that rehabilitation programs and the system is working – and negate the need for harsher, more punitive laws.

"This government does not make decisions based on evidence – they make decisions on political whim," he told CBC News Network's Power & Politics host Evan Solomon.

Cowan said the Conservative record is to table laws that are "completely redundant" and "unnecessary." He also warned that removing hope and redemption by eliminating parole eligibility will lead to more toxic prisons that are dangerous to staff and other inmates.

But John Muise, a retired Toronto police officer and victims' advocate who served for five years on the National Parole Board, insists it's a tougher approach to penalties that's working to lower the numbers of missing parolees and improved public safety.

Fewer offenders earning parole?

"Members of the parole board used to give out parole as if it was candy at Halloween back in the 1990s and they're not doing that any more," he said. "They’re making better risk assessment decisions, more conservative decisions, and the end result is enhanced public safety."

Muise said removing parole eligibility is driven less by enhancing public safety and more on the principle of punishment fitting the crime and reflecting society's denunciation of heinous crimes.