Prisons vs. Poverty – getting to the root of the problem.

Canadians will soon be spending more than ever to catch, convict and incarcerate criminals across the country. Figures released by the Federal Government show that the budget for Corrections Canada will rise to over $3-billion annually by 2013.  This represents an increase of over 27 per cent from 2010-11 figures which is largely tied to new infrastructure development and the addition of over 4,000 new correctional positions across the country.

Such increases are necessary, the Government notes, due to the growingnumber of criminals staying longer behind bars thanks to the current government’s tough-on-crime approach – this despite a decline in overall crime.

On an average day last year, Corrections Canada was responsible for 13,287 federally incarcerated offenders and 8,726 offenders in the community – which at a cost of over $95,000 per year per inmate certainly adds up.

In theory, the Conservative strategy would have mandatory sentences, longer period of incarceration and a focus on young offenders deter criminals from re-offending or even risking crime in the first place. It’s a strategy that is popular at the polls, and one that speaks to our innate desires to see crime met with punishment.

But is this actually an effective means of reducing crime and the propensity to recommit crimes?

The February 2010 edition of the University of Toronto’s Criminological Highlights would seem to say that such an approach won’t work.

In it, the authors note that their research finds no significant crime reducing effects of imprisonment or mandatory sentences. In fact, they note that “It could be argued, therefore, that judges who send offenders to prison for the first time in circumstances in which alternatives to imprisonment are plausible are likely to be contributing to an increased crime rate.”

So while we’re led to believe that we’re “tackling crime to build a stronger, safer, better Canada,” there’s very little evidence that we’re actually doing so with the moves being implemented in Ottawa.

If we were really serious about cracking down on crime, perhaps we’d look at where it originates: in communities with weak social safety nets, poor access to after school programs and with increased levels of intergenerational poverty. Crime, substance and physical abuse tend to follow.

Yet while we’re spending more on those in jail, we’re doing little to address those who have yet to make up their minds on their futures.

Canada ranks 25th amongst similar-income countries on social expenditure as a share of GDP, spending just $6,000 per capita on everything from pensions to unemployment insurance and daycare.

Spending on families is similarly atrocious, ranking in the bottom third alongside Mexico and Greece whilst Denmark, Sweden and the UK spend three times our share.

The results are perhaps best captured by the following:

First, child poverty in Canada is at an embarrassing level. More than one million Canadian children live in poverty, leaving us 26th out of 29 developed countries in terms of child poverty rates.

Second, according to Statistics Canada and the OECD, 42 per cent of Canadians aged 16-65, and 48 per cent of all Canadian adults, do not have sufficient literacy skills to handle the complex tasks required to live and work in today’s knowledge-based society.

These are statistics we’d most likely equate with a developing country, not Canada.

And yet nowhere do we see commitment to tackle issues such as these that pose significant risks to the health and progress of our economy and our local communities. If the best we can do to tackle such issues is to pour more money into our justice and corrections system, then we surely haven’t tried hard enough.

Spending more to catch and incarcerate criminals is an understandable strategy but one that desperately needs to be accompanied by increased funding to attack crime before it starts.

And while Canada’s fiscal deficit leaves no pennies unallocated, we must start treating the future health of our communities and economies as a priority.  A national strategy on poverty alleviation would be a headstart.

Doing so will provide a return on investment that no ‘tough on crime’ approach could ever dream of.

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2 Comments on “Prisons vs. Poverty – getting to the root of the problem.”

  1. Denis says:

    This may sound like a weird question, but what does “42 per cent of Canadians aged 16-65… do not have sufficient literacy skills to handle the complex tasks required to live and work in today’s society” really mean?

    Obviously these people are “living”, most of them are working (unemployment rate < 10%), and most of them are above the poverty line (< 15% of people I believe, depending on source). So how is it so many people living and working in today's society don't have the ability to actually do so?

    I pulled up the originally study you referred to, but it was – somewhat ironically – too long and complex for me to figure out (i.e. 276 pages of mostly tables and charts) in any reasonable time frame. Is it a relative score based on the 7-country average or something? If you happen to know, I'd be very interested.

  2. DH says:

    Hi Denis, in short, it means that 40% of Canadian adults do not have literacy skills at “the level considered by experts as a suitable minimum for coping with the increasing demands of the emerging knowledge society and information economy.”

    Yes, they can survive in basic service and industry jobs, but no they do not have the skills to migrate to other sectors of a knowledge-intensive economy. The study then goes on to highlight the relationship between lower literacy skills (measured in several manners) and a propensity for longer periods of unemployment / more difficulty in exiting periods of unemployment. Combined with a rapidly aging population, this poses some significant issues as to the future of our workforce and overall competitiveness…

    As for being a relative score, it is not. It’s late but tomorrow I’ll try and parse out the scores of the other countries studied (though outside of the US and Norway, the others are slightly less relevant as comparative ideals.)

    For those interested here’s the original research: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/7/34867438.pdf


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