09/29/2012 08:10 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

Aboriginal People Need Solutions, Not More Jail Time

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"The current state of over-representation of Aboriginal women in federal corrections is nothing short of a crisis." This rebuke is not from a politician or civil society group, but directly from a report commissioned by the Department of Public Safety itself. The unusually forceful language in this recent government report underscores the abject failure of this government's simplistic and outdated "tough on crime" approach, particularly for Canada's Aboriginal population.

The report, entitled "Marginalized," goes on to warn that the government's current crime agenda, "will only serve to further increase the numbers and worsen the already staggering injustice experienced by Aboriginal peoples as a whole."

Canadians must recognize how the historic injustices of the Indian Act and residential schools created the systemic barriers to progress and economic prosperity that have fostered unacceptable gaps in outcomes for health, education, housing and access to basic rights like adequate food and safe, clean, drinkable water. There needs to be a complete understanding of the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools and the deleterious effects it has had on mental health, addictions, parenting and therefore the resulting interaction of Aboriginal people with the justice system.

Aboriginal people are four per cent of the Canadian population, but 20 per cent of the prison population. Even more shocking, one in three women in federal prisons is Aboriginal and over the last 10 years representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system has increased by nearly 90 per cent. Despite only representing six per cent of the female youth population in Canada, almost half (44 per cent) of the female youth in custody are Indigenous.

Last spring when I visited the new prison for women in Manitoba, the over-representation of Aboriginal women was truly alarming. When I asked the warden the reason for the incarcerations, she told me "breeches of their conditions." She stated that the majority of women had not originally been sentenced to jail. One "slip" could result in five more charges. Five more charges on her record and jail time. This just doesn't seem right.

We need policies and programmes that ensure that youth who make a mistake don't end up as repeat offenders -- in and out of the prison system -- sentenced to a life of crime. If we can prevent their first offence, even better. So many young offenders tell the same story: "The first time that they ever felt they belonged was when they joined a gang" or that "The first time they'd ever been told they were good at something was shoplifting."

Appalling the Conservatives have slashed $35.6 million (20 per cent) of federal funding for youth justice programs to supervise and rehabilitate young offenders.

The Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS) was created specifically in response to the disproportionate number of Aboriginal persons involved in the criminal justice system, both as offenders and victims. The government's own 2011 evaluation of the AJS found that "there remains a need for culturally relevant alternatives to the mainstream justice system" and said the AJS was "effective in achieving its intermediate outcome of involving Aboriginal communities in the local administration of justice." The response of the government was to slash the funding in half from $20.8 million in 2011 to $10.3 million in 2012.

We know the profile of inmates is changing and that the level of mental illness inside the system is growing. The Correctional Investigator has told us that a modest estimate for the number of male prisoners suffering from mental health issues is 38 per cent, and that for female offenders it is 50 per cent.

Mental Health advocates and those of us concerned with the unacceptable incarceration rate of Aboriginal people in Canada don't believe that prison is an appropriate mental health or housing strategy. It's also way too expensive. As Greenspan and Doob explain in this month's Walrus: "Keeping a single inmate in federal penitentiary costs about $117,000 per year; a provincial inmate about$58,000. Money spent on incarceration is money not spent on services (the police, education, public health, and so on) that the evidence suggests would be more effective at reducing crime."

Unfortunately, the Conservative response has been the opposite of what common sense, and the preponderance of the evidence, tells us is needed. They are closing prisons at the same time they are pursuing sentencing changes that will dramatically increase prison populations. Locking people up in overcrowded conditions for longer will not make us safer. I remember, as a member of the Justice Committee a decade ago, learning that Canada had the lowest recidivism rate in the world. The then Chair of the committee asked a "tough on crime" witness, "If in your approach the inmate comes out to a life of crime and in mine he never re-offends, which system creates a safer society?"

I am disheartened when I read the prediction in this government commissioned report that, "it is highly unlikely that the issues of such a marginalized population will receive the attention and resources necessary to even begin to address the multitude of issues." The Aboriginal population is the youngest and fastest growing population in Canada. Evidence is clear that a "secure, personal and cultural identity" is the key to mental health.

Pride and dignity of who you are is imperative to making good choices. But the Conservative government has effectively turned its back on this tremendous resource and potential source of future prosperity for all Canadians. Aboriginal children on reserve are still receiving only two thirds of the funding per year as children in the provincial system. Only one third of aboriginal children finish high school. Education is the key to economic opportunity but also to staying out of jail.

This isn't an Aboriginal problem, it's a Canadian problem.

All Canadians must realize that it is in all of our interests -- in terms of public safety, cost and untapped human potential -- to heed the call of this report and take "aggressive action" to deal with this national disgrace.