Blind justice

Pam Frampton
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"A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door."

- Confucius (551-479 BC)

Once upon a time, in a place called America, the state of Georgia saw its prison population double over a 20-year span to 56,000 inmates.

And that's not the only thing that doubled.

Georgia now spends $1 billion a year to house those prisoners, compared to $492 million in 1990.

(This is a simple tale that our well-rewarded Canadian senators should heed as they prepare to deal with Bill C-10, the tough-on-crime legislation.)

Last summer, Georgia realized that handing out longer sentences for lesser offences had not helped keep ex-cons out of prison, so it decided to change direction.

It has an ambitious plan to save money and make communities safer by concentrating on helping ex-cons lessen their likelihood of reoffending.

The Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reforms for Georgians, released last month, outlines the strategy.

It's based on cold, hard facts.

Not gut instinct. Not left-leaning, bleeding-heart, inside-every-criminal-there's-a-good-kid-crying-out-for-help theories. Not on the desire to save money at any cost. But facts. Scientific research.

Georgia realized its money would be better spent on stepping up supervision and services for people who've done their time than in sending more and more people to prison.

Non-violent criminals

Georgia also discovered that almost 60 per cent of people admitted to its prisons were there for drug and property offences, and that one-quarter of them had never been to prison before.

The report says, "Looking (specifically) at drug admissions, more than 3,200 offenders are admitted to prison each year on a drug possession conviction - as opposed to a sales or trafficking conviction - and two-thirds of these inmates are assessed as being a lower risk to re-offend."

Should all of these people be sent to jail, or would addictions counselling, restorative justice, community supervision or some other method of dissuasion work better than locking up the petty criminals with the hard-core crowd?

The other problem Georgia faced - and we will, too, if Bill C-10 sails through the Senate - is that sending more people to jail means you'll eventually wind up with more people out on parole and probation, with too few staff to keep track of them.

"Supervision agencies do not have the resources required to supervise offenders adequately," Georgia's report notes.

"With greater investment in these and other programs ... the state can reduce recidivism and create viable sentencing options for judges that can achieve better public safety outcomes at a lower cost."

The report will be considered by the Georgia legislature in 2012.

Seeing the light

And it's not just Georgia that has adopted a fresh approach to reducing prison populations and creating safer communities.

Texas, the so-called law and order state, was faced with overcrowded cells and a pressing need for $2 billion in new prison construction a couple of years ago, the report notes.

Instead, it "passed a comprehensive package of reforms ... and invested $241 million in residential, diversion and treatment centers."

The result? Last year Texas actually closed a prison and posted its lowest crime rate since 1973.

The Georgia report notes, "And Texas is not the only state that has succeeded in reducing both crime and imprisonment: all 19 states that cut their imprisonment rates between 1999 and 2009 also experienced a decline in their crime rates."

Recommended reading

Please - somebody get a copy of this report to our prime minister and senators. The key to law and order is not just punishment, but rehabilitation; and thoughtful proaction, not hasty reaction.

Criticism of Bill C-10 has been plentiful. The act will introduce lengthier minimum sentences for many crimes, as well as other measures.

Last month, the Canadian Bar Association issued a news release with 10 reasons to oppose the bill, saying, "It represents a huge step backwards; rather than prioritizing public safety, it emphasizes retribution above all else. It's an approach that will make us less safe, less secure and, ultimately, less Canadian."

In October, the state of Texas tried to convince Canada to change course.

Speaking to CBC News reporter Terry Milewski on Oct. 17, Judge John Creuzota of Dallas County Court put it bluntly: "You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up. And there will come a point in time where the public says, 'Enough!' And you'll wind up letting them out."

That same day, the Justice Policy Institute in Washington issued its own warning.

"(Bill C-10) will take Canadian justice policies 180 degrees in the wrong direction and Canadian citizens will bear the costs," said executive director Tracy Velázquez.

The institute also said C-10 doesn't appear to be based on evidence-based practices, nor does it assess risk in order to prevent "wasting resources locking up people who pose little public safety risk."

In-house advice ignored

Late last month, an internal report for the federal Justice Department - obtained by The Canadian Press (CP) through an access to information request - showed that new tougher sentences for drunk drivers did not deter them from reoffending.

As Dean Beeby reported for CP: "A Justice Department-ordered study that draws on a statistical analysis of crime and punishment appears at odds with the Conservatives' crime-fighting philosophy, especially considering its apparently contrary findings about harsh sentencing."

So, the PM isn't listening to his own Justice Department.

He's ignoring provinces like this one, that are warning Bill C-10 is ill-thought-out.

He is oblivious to warnings from the United States, where the message is "been there, done that, got the T-shirt."

Who's he listening to?

He isn't.

And we'll pay for this colossal misstep for decades to come, and in more ways than one.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: pam_framptom

Organizations: Special Council on Criminal Justice Reforms, Justice Department, Canadian Press Canadian Bar Association CBC News Dallas County Court Justice Policy Institute Conservatives

Geographic location: Georgia, United States, Texas Canada Washington

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Recent comments

  • Carl
    December 10, 2011 - 21:59

    Ms. Frampton herself is ignoring some key facts and statistics. For starters, she starts by pointing out that the cost of Georgia's prison system doubled since 1990. That was 22 years ago. Assuming an average two percent annual inflation rate, Georgia's prison costs would have gone up by fifty-five percent over the same period even without tougher sentences. Second, Frampton talks about how pointless it is to have long prison sentences for simple drug possession. I agree with this point, but it is irrelevant to Canada's Bill C-10, which does not change sentences for simple possession. Bill C-10 only increases sentences for producing and selling drugs. Finally, even if it can be proven that Georgia's prison sentences were too long, that doesn't mean Canada's prison sentences under Bill C-10 will be too long. We are starting from a completely different point. Even after our sentences are toughened under Bill C-10 and Georgia's sentences are relaxed, their sentences will still be far longer than ours. So Frampton is comparing apples and oranges. I agree with her on one key point -- good public policy must be based on facts. But it must be based on all the facts, not just the ones selected by Ms. Frampton.