Canadian prisons are grossly overcrowded; no one will argue with that. And incarceration has an annoying tendency to perpetuate rather than prevent crime; that, too, is generally acknowledged. So the debate over penal reform has moved beyond recognition of these shortcomings. It now starts when alternatives are proposed.
Sometime during the current session of parliament, an omnibus bill amending the Criminal Code will be introduced, laying down the ground rules for penal reform. The underlying creed, says Justice Minister Ron Basford, is to avoid exposing every offender to the full weight of the criminal justice system, which “can be compared to running over a fly with a steamroller.” So while the government plans to reduce inmate overcrowding by spending $347 million on nine new penitentiaries, it will also be officially adopting two options to imprisonment—restitution and community work orders.
Several provinces, and even the federal government, have been experimenting with both these concepts—paying back the victim of a crime with work or money, or providing volunteer help in the community—and there have been many successes. In Ontario, for instance, a 14-year-old boy who smashed a university light agreed to do 37 hours of outdoor maintenance work on campus. The university was so pleased with his workmanship that it hired him for the summer. In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, an elderly man convicted of shoplifting did volunteer work at a senior citizens’ home. His lawlessness was caused by loneliness and his record remains clean as he continues to work at the home.
Restitution as opposed to imprisonment has advantages not only for the offender but for the victim as well, who often tends to lose put in the criminal process. The taxpayer also stands to gain as it costs about $40 a day to keep a prisoner, compared to an estimate of $2.35 on a community work order. Noting this disparity, a recent report from a parliamentary subcommittee on penitentiaries, in which the 13 MPS agreed unanimously, stated:“Before entering into a multimillion-dollar construction program, less costly and more productive alternatives should be found.”
The federal government is already funding some 40 projects diverting offenders from the mainstream of the courts, but it has been moving tentatively since the entire legality of work orders and restitution remains in question until the planned Criminal Code amendments are introduced. On top of that, even the most vocal champions of these reforms advise caution. Warns Basford: “It must not be seen as a cheap source of workers which would upset the labor community, nor as some form of slavery.” In Calgary, Judge Herman Litsky recognizes that courts have a “kind of black magic aura,” especially to juveniles. But he warns against diverting offenders into alternatives that can be mediated by people outside the judicial establishment. Says Litsky: “The problem is it’s an unchallengeable system with no right of appeal.”
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