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The Canadian government is getting ready to spend more than $3.6 billion on a catchphrase, Memorial University professor Justin Piché said.
“Getting tough on crime” is fun to say and easy to get behind, a motto that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been pushing as part of plans to build provincial super-prisons as well as expand Canada’s current jails.
But Memorial University sociology professor Justin Piché says it’s bewildering that the government would suddenly want to spend so much money when the crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1973.
He lectured at St. Thomas University on Friday afternoon about the need for an alternative approach to building more prisons. His appearance is part of a tour called “Punishment is tough on your wallet.”
“I feel we are living in really bizarre times,” said Piché. “I’m still trying to figure this all out…it makes no sense.”
Piché said the Harper government is trying to fix a problem that just isn’t there and that “getting tough on crime” goes against 30 years of research and statistics that prove otherwise.
“We should be spending money on keeping people out of jail in the first place,” said Piché.
“It costs $118,000 to keep a Canadian in jail a year,” said Piché. “Less than three per cent of that goes to social programs.
“It makes no sense.”
According to Piché, the idea of super-prisons will not only cost billions to build, but will also have a human cost that cannot be tallied.
The concept behind these centres is that minimum and medium security risk prisoners will be housed under the same roof as maximum security risk prisoners. Although separated, men and women would be caged within the same perimeter.
Criminals with mental health issues, gang members and first-time offenders would all reside on the same prison grounds and share the facilities.
“Once we commit to paying the bills on these prisons, we’re in it,” he said. “The federal government is making a decision that next generation of provincial government will actually have to pay for.”
Centralizing these prison sites in each province also means that in many cases, family visitation could become less frequent due to travel. Taking a prisoner away from outside contact takes away hope, makes harder criminals and further isolates them from society, he said.
“Taking away hope is the worst thing we can do to a person.”
The idea of privatizing these prisons is something the federal government has been looking at in order to cut costs, even though private prison projects have failed before in Ontario and the U.K.
Piché also used Texas as an example of how being tough on crime only perpetuates the problem.
“They pride themselves on it in Texas,” he said. “In the 70s, they had 200 people in prison for every 100,000.
“Now, as they cracked down on crime, that number just increased. It’s now 743 for every 100,000.
“That hard-ball approach only took 30 years,” said Piche. “It doesn’t take long for that sort of thing to happen.”
Six of 10 prisoners in Canada haven’t even been charged yet, he added, while 60 per cent of prisoners are simply awaiting trial.
“Maybe Harper’s right, we do have a crises in our penal system.” said Piché. “For me, that’s the crisis.”