Aboriginal prisoners are overrepresented in Canada's federal prisons and waiting longer for parole, according to new numbers from the Public Safety Ministry, which is responsible for corrections.
Federal offenders are first eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentences, but their release isn't guaranteed.
However, according to the 2014 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview, nearly 85 per cent of aboriginal offenders are detained in federal prisons until they have served two-thirds of their sentences, at which time most offenders are entitled to statutory release, compared to 69 per cent of non-aboriginal offenders.
Struggles to secure housing, an inmate's criminal record and high caseloads for legal aid lawyers all contribute to longer wait times for release of aboriginal inmates in federal prisons, says Lydia Bardak of the John Howard Society in Yellowknife.
"Statistically, aboriginal offenders are more likely to go right to the end of their sentence date, which is something we don't want to see," said Bardak.
"Releasing someone at the end of their sentence does not make a safe community."
Housing a problem
Bardak said the closer inmates come to serving their full sentences, the more likely they are to have a higher "rate of reoffending," because they aren't given the opportunity to practise what they have learned in rehabilitation programs.
Bardak said many northern offenders serving federal time in the south also struggle to secure safe housing close to a parole officer.
"We don't exactly have [a transition home] here in Yellowknife, but there are four beds dedicated at Bailey House for federal corrections releases. There's just the one parole officer here in Yellowknife."
The report also notes the aboriginal population in federal prisons continues to grow.
The total aboriginal inmate population increased by 40 per cent in 2004-5 and 2013-14. While aboriginal people make up three per cent of Canada's adult population, they made up 23.1 per cent of the in-custody population and 16.8 per cent of offenders on community supervision in 2013- 14.
The report also found aboriginal inmates entered the federal corrections system at a younger age than non-aboriginal offenders.
In its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for governments to eliminate the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in custody over the next 10 years.
TRC commissioner Marie Wilson heard from thousands of former residential school students, including offenders.
"The hardest transition they had to make in their life was going from residential school back to their community," she says.
"The easiest they had to make was going from residential school to the criminal justice system. "
The TRC calls to action include 17 recommendations related to justice, such as:
- Creating more programs and services for offenders with FASD;
- Calling on all levels of government to work with aboriginal communities to provide culturally-relevant services to inmates on issues such as substance abuse, family and domestic violence, and overcoming the experience of having been sexually abused;
- Making sure lawyers receive training about the legacy of residential schools, aboriginal rights and indigenous law.
Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said in an email: "Our Conservative government believes that criminals belong behind bars.
"Conditional release is not a right, it must be earned. Offenders have access to correctional programming that addresses their criminality."
|Number of aboriginal offenders in federal prison (percentage of all offenders)|
Source: Correctional Service of Canada