Government spending on programs to help re-integrate inmates back into society once they've served their sentences is not keeping pace with spending to build more jail cells, CBC News has learned.
According to a CBC News analysis of data from Correctional Services of Canada (CSC), the government is increasing spending on capital items such as new prison cells at double the rate of spending on programs designed to curb violent and deviant behaviour that landed people in prison in the first place.
Correctional reintegration programs
Summary of capital spending by program activity
Critics say the discrepancy between capital and program spending can actually make Canadian streets more dangerous. This is because offenders may not benefit from needed programs, such as substance abuse treatment, that may help them avoid reoffending.
Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, whose office operates as an ombudsman for inmates, told CBC News the lack of program spending is a problem that CSC must fix.
In his 2008-2009 report, Sapers highlighted the problem when it pointed out that the correctional service spends two per cent of its budget on programs.
"This office does not think two per cent of an approximately $2.2 billion annual budget is the right balance .… We look forward to seeing more programs being provided to more offenders earlier in their sentences as new funding is rolled out."
Sapers said that while he is encouraged to see the spending increase, it's not enough to keep up with the surge of inmates that will be behind bars, in large part because of the government's so-called "truth in sentencing" legislation, which will force more inmates to serve longer sentences.
Earlier this week, the Harper government dispatched a number of MPs to announce renovations to penitentiaries across the country.
According to a briefing note obtained through the Access to Information Act (see documents in sidebar), the new law will increase the number of men and women behind bars by 3,445 within the next three years.
This increase, combined with the normal growth of the number of people in jail, means an increase of about 33 per cent, which is also at a significantly faster rate than programming spending.
According to a document prepared in response to a question from the Liberal Party's public safety critic, Mark Holland, CSC spends money in six areas, including programs to deal with violence and substance abuse. These six areas fall under a program called Correctional Integration.
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Some specific programs such as violence prevention are increasing, while others such as substance abuse are not. When taken in total, the six areas are increasing at a rate of just over 20 per cent for the next three years.
As far as Sapers is concerned, it makes little sense to spend billions of dollars housing and feeding inmates while spending so little on programs to help them get better.
"You can only lock up people and incapacitate them for so long," he says. "There's not an example anywhere on earth that we've found where simple incapacitation has led to safer communities.
"It's always separating people from the community for a purpose. And that purpose has to be reintegration. And that reintegration can be safe. And we have learned how to do some of that well. But we have to put that learning into practice, and that does cost money."
Making matters worse is the kind of inmate that is entering the system.
"The most vulnerable and marginalized within our society, Aboriginals and individuals with mental health concerns, continue to be significantly over-represented in penitentiary populations," Ed McIsaac, head of the John Howard Society, says in a release reacting to the recent announcements to increase the number of cells in penitentiaries.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, while he recognizes the importance of programs, says his government won't increase spending at the same rate as capital costs for building new cells.
"We constantly look at those types of issues," Toews told CBC News. "I can't make any commitments in terms of programming expansion, other than to say we have made a number of initiatives in respect of increasing programming for prisoners to ensure that they have the skills when they get out of prison."
For prison-rights advocates and other critics, this response is not good enough. They say the government only seems to be care about locking up people without realizing that most offenders will return to their communities.
Lack of access to programs, however, means inmates have more difficulty gaining parole. So instead of taking programs and easing their way back into the community with the help of parole officers, an increasing number of offenders are reaching what's called their statutory limit, the time when they must be released, without having taken any programs.
"What we know is that gradual, supervised release into the community is the safest form of release," says Sapers. "And [this gradual, supervised release] offers the highest degree of public protection."
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