Billions of Canadians’ tax dollars are about to be spent on prison construction.

This is because all the major political parties have been voting to increase incarceration. Before you make up your own mind, consider the information that follows. If the goal is to improve public safety, a truly effective sentence reduces the chances the offender will continue to commit crimes. Thus, the number one priority of Canada’s Correctional Service is “safe transition of eligible offenders into the community.” Yet the 2006-2007 annual report of the Correctional Investigator says too many offenders are spending time in prison without access to the programs they need to reintegrate into society. Nearly one in three offenders (31 percent) released from prison in 2002/2003 returned within two years. A recent U.K. study found that community-based alternatives to prison offer better value for money for the taxpayer. In line with a large body of research, it concluded that no alternative sentence was less effective than prison: every alternative sentence was at least as effective as prison, but usually more so. Even when there is little difference in rates of re-offending between a prison and community sentence, the community sentence is still less expensive, more cost effective. Comparing the costs of community sentences versus prison sentences, the study identified savings to the public purse of between £30,000 and £88,000 ($60,000 to $177,000) per offender. Alternatives to prison Community correction programs were developed starting in the 1950s as a response to the recognition that traditional prison sentences were not working. They are intended to reduce the overreliance on prison sentences by offering alternatives that help offenders re-integrate successfully into the community. Treatment programs are generally more effective when delivered in a community setting. Community-based sentences can also serve to address victim concerns. The following are examples of sentences that can be used instead of prison. Alternative Measures Programs—The offender is diverted from the criminal justice system before or after a charge is laid. He or she enters into a kind of contractual agreement to answer for the crime through community service work, personal service to the victim, a charitable donation, participating in counselling or any other appropriate task or condition. Restitution Programs—The offender must pay back the victim for damages or loss. Fine Options Programs—The offender may work off a fine by performing approved community work for a set hourly rate of pay. Community Service Order—A condition on a probation order, or a separate disposition in the case of young offenders, which requires the offender to perform work in the community. Probation—The offender is supervised in the community and must follow conditions set out in a probation order. These could include: abstaining from alcohol or other intoxicating substances; providing support and care for dependents; performing community service; and/or restitution. Conditional Sentence of Imprisonment—A prison sentence of less than two years where the judge allows the offender to serve in the community. Offenders serving conditional sentences are more closely supervised than probation clients and must abide by conditions similar to a probation order.

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Electronic Monitoring—The offender is fitted with an anklet or bracelet that transmits signals of his or her whereabouts to a correctional officer. Community-Based Centres—Offenders released from prison into a community-based facility can re-integrate into society gradually, pursue employment and educational opportunities, and maintain important family ties. Parole—This is a form of conditional release similar to probation except that the offender is in the community while still serving some of the prison sentence. The chances of re-offending are lower for supervised offenders than for those released with no supervision. Community Treatment Orders—These prescribe de-institutionalized treatment for an offender who is mentally ill. In some provinces, mentally ill individuals charged with minor offences may be sent directly to a treatment program rather than going through full court procedures. Restorative justice programs focus on repairing the harm caused by crime while holding the offender responsible for his or her actions. Those directly affected by the crime—victim(s), offender and community—are given opportunities to identify and address their needs. The goal is to seek a resolution that aims for healing, reparation and reintegration, and prevents future harm. Practices such as Victim-Offender Mediation, Community Conferencing, and Peacemaking Circles can be offered at various stages of the criminal justice process, including as an alternative to a prison sentence. These programs lead to higher victim satisfaction, while reducing the chances the offender will continue to commit offences. The goal: sentences that help reduce crime Public opinion surveys show that most Canadians would rather invest in non-prison sanctions than pay for more prisons. Sensible alternatives that are “intelligent” and “fair” are quite acceptable as long as they hold the offender accountable and are, themselves, accountable to the community. The U.K. study found alternative sentences were significantly more cost effective that prison sentences. • Offenders sentenced to an intensive supervision program with drug treatment, or house arrest with electronic monitoring and recommended treatment were 14 per cent less likely to reoffend after release than comparable offenders receiving prison sentences. A program for non-violent drug-addicted offenders focused on teaching positive personal and social values and behaviour and provided vocational and educational programs. Residents were supervised 24 hours a day. Those who received this sentence were 43 per cent less likely to re-offend after release than comparable offenders receiving prison sentences. Young offenders receiving community supervision with victim reparation were three percent less likely to re-offend after release than comparable offenders receiving prison sentences. While the re-offending rate is not significantly lower, the cost of the community sentence is, thus making it much more cost effective.

In cases where prison sentences are required, the research showed that prison sentences incorporating some form of training or treatment are more effective in reducing re-offending than prison without interventions. Offenders receiving drug treatment while in prison were 30 percent less likely to reoffend after release than comparable offenders receiving only prison sentences. These findings imply that a smart sentencing policy uses community sentences and restorative justice programs for situations in which it is safe to do so, and applies the savings to provide strong rehabilitative programming. The result — less crime, with no added cost to taxpayers. Moreover, keeping the correctional services budget under control could give the government an opportunity to put more resources into programs that improve the quality of life for all Canadians and ultimately help prevent the root causes of crime.

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References Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada 2006-2007, September 2007. Online: http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/reports/pdf/AR200607_e.pdf Anthony N. Doob, Transforming the Punishment Environment: Understanding Public Views of What Should Be Accomplished at Sentencing, Canadian Journal of Criminology, Vol. 42, No. 3, 323-340, July 2000. Online: http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=184243 Church Council on Justice and Corrections, Satisfying Justice: Safe Community Options that attempt to repair harm from crime and reduce the use or length of imprisonment. Online: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/pblct/stisfy/juste.pdf Jeff Latimer, Craig Dowden & Danielle Muise, The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis (Department of Justice Canada: Research and Statistics Division), 2001. Online: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/rs/rep-rap/2001/rp01_1-dr01_1/p1.html Larry Motiuk, Colette Cousineau & Justin Gileno, The Safe Return of Offenders to the Community – Statistical Overview, April 2005 (Research Branch Correctional Operations and Programs, Correctional Service of Canada). Online: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/rsrch/safe_return2005/safe_return2005_e.pdf Matrix Knowledge Group, The economic case for and against prison, November 2007. Online: http://matrixknowledge.co.uk/prison-economics Shirley Steller, Special Study on Mentally Disordered Accused and the Criminal Justice System (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada), January 2003. Online: http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection/Statcan/85-559-X/85559-XIE2002001.pdf

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