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Parole change keeps 100 women in prison

Canada's correctional investigator says he's deeply concerned about prison overcrowding, just three months after Parliament eliminated accelerated parole reviews for federal inmates.
Howard Sapers, Canada's Correctional Investigator, says a change to parole eligibility means first-time female offenders are facing overcrowding. (The Canadian Press)

Canada's correctional investigator says he's deeply concerned about prison overcrowding, just three months after Parliament eliminated accelerated parole reviews for federal inmates.

Howard Sapers said the new law is having the biggest impact on female prisoners.

The new Public Safety law prevents first-time, non-violent offenders from being eligible for parole after serving one-sixth of their sentence. But that means more women are staying in prison longer even though there aren't enough cells.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced the passage of the law in March, and the government said it would prevent big-time swindlers and rip-off artists, as such Montreal's Earl Jones, from getting out of prison after serving just one sixth of their sentences.

Sapers said the new law is adversely affecting women because they have fewer cells, although eliminating accelerated parole reviews has put stress on the entire prison system.

"The parole board will now have to accommodate about 1,000 additional hearings a year for the lowest-risk offenders," he said.

That will mean delays and more overcrowding, Sapers said. "This is not good correctional practice. It's not safe correctional practice. It's not consistent with policy. It's not good for the women and it's certainly not good for the staff."

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the legislation has also affected 100 first-time, non-violent women convicted of federal crimes, such as cheque fraud and possessing drugs.

"[That's] a hundred women who otherwise probably would have been able to go directly into the community, be supervised, be reintegrated, are now being held in custody awaiting an appearance before the parole board," she said.

Pate said those female inmates are now facing delays of up to a year to get a hearing before the National Parole Board. Not only will it cost more to keep more women behind bars longer, Pate said it's exacerbating the overcrowding problem.

"We're seeing double-bunking in segregation, in maximum security units, using interview rooms, using private family visiting areas and now gymnasiums to house women," Pate said.

The Liberals and New Democrats opposed the bill.

Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia says it was pretty clear the legislation was too broad.

"I think the net was cast much too large and it's going to create other kinds of problems down the road," he said.

Sapers said the Correctional Service of Canada is doing the best it can as laws change faster than it can build new cells.

A spokesperson for the CSC says it is actively preparing to manage any increase in offender population that may result from this legislation.