05/11/2012 05:11 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Why Making Prisoners "Pay" Won't Work


Mere months after passing Bill C-10, legislation that combined a stupefying number of failed crime policies together in one place, the Federal government is at it again. Time for prisoners to start paying their own way, says the Minister for Public Safety, Vic Toews.

As usual, the language used is instructive. Couched in terms of cost savings, Toews couldn't resist adding the non sequitur that these changes are designed to show victims of crime that prisoners don't get all the rights. As if there were a limited number. Sigh.

As the Globe and Mailreports, these new measures include:

Charging more to stay in prisons, getting rid of incentive pay tied to certain inmate work and ensuring offenders are charged for their phone calls. Theses are among the changes the minister says will save a total of $10 million each year.

As anyone who has been paying attention to this issue knows, Canada is in the process of importing tough-on-crime policies from the U.S. While even conservative Texan policymakers agree these have been disastrous in financial and human terms, Canada will embrace mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing. This will invariably lead to the reduction of community corrections programs that have been shown to best promote successful rehabilitation and reintegration.

Announcing that the measures will save $10 million a year at a time when the costs of the C-10 will amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, Toews is clapping himself on the back for blowing out a match while his house burns down.

Those of us who work in corrections know that most incarcerated individuals are from financially insecure backgrounds. They have little formal education and few job prospects. The idea that we should take more from those who have the least, to help pay for failed get-tough policies is abhorrent. It is also a sign of the times. So where does this all lead?

There are two worrying possibilities. While both would be a profound departure from our policies of the past, neither should be discounted. Progressives ought to start carefully considering how far the Tories will go to change the way Canadians think about justice. When policy is not based on what works to promote rehabilitation but instead craven appeals to base-emotions, cynicism starts to look like good common sense.

The first possibility is based on the underlying idea that prisoners should pay ever-increasing amounts for the privilege of being incarcerated. In some American states, this has led to the advent of Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) or fees, fines and restitution orders that are assessed at the time of a criminal conviction.

Interest accrues and yearly collection fees are added onto the bill. The Seattle University School of Law argues LFOs represent a significant additional obstacle for those attempting to secure stable employment and housing post-incarceration. By placing financial hardships on those with the least ability to pay, an individuals' sentence is never over.

Paying your debt to society takes on a new and worrying meaning.

The second possibility flows from the first. While Canada has largely avoided the private prison industry -- sometimes known as the prison industrial complex -- past approaches are clearly no guarantee for the future. In the U.S., private prisons are common, despite the high costs for taxpayers, and poor record of private prisons in protecting and respecting the civil and human rights of those incarcerated. But what if prisoners and their families were forced to fund private prisons? What if instead of trying to break the cycle of poverty-to-prison-to-poverty, we actively embraced it?

There are some in Canada who seek to play politics with the lives of our incarcerated citizens. Instead of taking responsibility for supporting these folks to make better choices, funding education and treatment and modelling pro-social interactions, they seek to punish people -- hour by hour, day by day and year after year. These new policies are both more of the same old Tory talking points, and a worrying new front in the battle to forgo Canada's reputation as a global leader in justice policy.