Sunday, January 8, 2012 | Categories: Michael's Essays
In all the heated debate over the new tough-on-crime legislation, there is one area of possible collateral damage that is, so far, under-reported and under-explored. And that is the effect of the new rules on women and children.
Women comprise the fastest growing population in Canada's federal prisons. Aboriginal women, though less than two per cent of the Canadian population, make up 34 per cent of female federal inmates. Currently there are about 600 women serving time in federal institutions and, as I say, the number is growing.
The pattern of female criminality differs in substantial ways from crimes committed by men. Much of female crime springs directly from poverty, leading to such offences as welfare fraud and shoplifting. Women rarely act alone in committing crime. Their offences are often auxiliary, aiding and abetting a male partner--a husband or boyfriend.
Before the introduction of Bill C-10, the so-called law and order legislation, a judge could exercise his or her discretion and impose a conditional sentence instead of jail time. Depending on the circumstances of the crime, and if there was no violence involved, the female offender could avoid going to jail, and as a result continue to take care of her children. Not any more. With the imposition of mandatory sentencing, judges in most cases will have no choice. Their discretion is gone. They will have to impose a jail sentence.
The majority of women in federal prisons have children, many of them very young, and the mothers are the sole support of those children. Fathers behind bars can usually count on their female partners to care for any children. If a single, sole-supporting mother goes to jail, the children can wind up in foster care, with all the attendant expenditures which that entails.
The story of women in our prisons is not a heartwarming one. More than 85 per cent of women doing federal time are serving their first term of imprisonment. Since the practice of early parole application has been removed in the crime package, more women will be serving longer sentences, often in deplorable conditions.
This past November, the federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers worried out loud about overcrowding in women's prisons. He discovered that the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener is housing something like 183 inmates, where it was designed and built to house a maximum of 162 offenders. Inmates are double-bunking and sleeping in interview rooms and visiting areas. Similar overcrowding has been reported at the women's prison in Edmonton. What is especially disturbing is that many of these women have mental and cognitive disabilities. Women who in the past would have been committed to psychiatric and mental health facilities are now being criminalized, sent to prison.
As Kim Pate, lawyer and executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada has pointed out on a number of occasions, when corrections institution try to adapt to women the techniques it uses for men, it increasingly criminalizes women with mental disabilities.
Even though the incidence of crime is falling nationally in all categories, Canadians are worried about possible threats to their personal security. And those worries have to be addressed.
But we have to ask ourselves if lawmakers debating Bill C-10 had any idea of the impact its passage would have on mothers and children.