Dr. Allan Castle

The practice of sentencing offenders to prison or remanding them in custody is a central feature of Canadian criminal justice. The practice first evolved in Western Europe as a means of replacing violent, public punishments from the 17th century onward.

Is incarceration effective? Today, Canada imprisons its population at a higher rate than most Western European or Scandinavian countries, but less frequently than the United States and the United Kingdom. Custody is typically meted out in small but frequent doses. The median length of custody for all offences in Canada is thirty days, with more than 80 percent of custodial sentences being for six months or less. It is also well-established that a small percentage of Canada’s offenders dominate the statistics, receiving these short sentences again and again and spinning the proverbial revolving door of justice. And twenty years after R. v. Gladue, Indigenous women and men are still being sentenced to prison in greatly disproportionate numbers relative to population with no improvement.[i]

In 2020, these issues move to the centre of justice policy discussions. In January, the National Criminal Justice Symposium, sponsored by Justice Canada, will explore international justice models which are far less reliant on incarceration, and consider strategies to decarcerate heavily overrepresented groups, making recommendations to the federal government and other relevant authorities. The British Columbia Justice Summit may also scrutinize the use of short terms of incarceration in this province.

What is at issue? For nonviolent offenders and for those experiencing other factors such as poverty, intergenerational trauma, or mental health and substance use disorders, short periods of custody now appear to be questionably effective, whether in terms of denunciation, deterrence, societal short custodial sentences protection, rehabilitation, reparations, or acceptance of responsibility.[ii] Worse, in many cases incarceration – via negative socialization, stigma, and disruption of positive influences – may make sentencing objectives more difficult to achieve by reinforcing criminal identity and unwittingly closing off exits from the crime cycle.[iii] Meanwhile, treatment, social support, stable housing, food security and good health offer pathways out of the system for many at costs that compare favourably with the revolving door of custody.

Our dependence on prison predates the era of evaluation. With an increasing public interest in evidence-based policies, researchers can now address the fear of the alternatives that has inhibited innovation and debate. Reducing our reliance on certain forms of custody may seem socially controversial, but Canada has already experimented successfully in the same area. The decline of youth incarceration following passage of the Youth Criminal Justice Act suggests that decreasing dependence on custody in a managed way can be achieved with minimal upheaval and largely within existing budgetary provisions.[iv]

Our understanding of adult offenders as whole people whose behaviour can neither be understood nor addressed in a criminal justice bubble continues to grow. Today, with the tools at our disposal we have the opportunity to consider the received wisdom of justice system institutions as just that. Now is the moment to examine the utility of short-term incarceration in a nuanced way, both critically and responsibly.

Dr. Allan Castle is a Senior Associate with ICCLR. He coordinates the National Criminal Justice Symposium and has organized the British Columbia Justice Summits since 2013.

(14 Jan. 2020)

[i] Spotlight on Gladue: Challenges, Experiences, and Possibilities in Canada’s Criminal Justice System, available at: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/gladue/p2.html

[ii][ii] Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, available at: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rpr94.pdf

[iii] What we heard – Transforming Canada’s criminal justice system available at: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/other-autre/tcjs-tsjp/p1.html

[iv] Adult and youth correctional statistics in Canada, 2017/2018, table 6 on the relative costs of custody versus community supervision. available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2019001/article/00010-eng.htm

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

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