Hundreds of Canadian convicts repatriated from foreign prisons over past 5 years
Liberal government says repatriating offenders helps enhance public safety
More than 250 Canadians convicted of crimes in other countries were transferred home over the last five years, while just nine foreign nationals incarcerated in Canada were transferred out during that time period.
Since 1978, 1,917 Canadians have been repatriated from foreign prisons, compared to just 136 foreign offenders leaving Canada to serve a sentence in their own countries.
More than three-quarters of the Canadians transferred since 1978 — 1,520 — came home from American federal and state penitentiaries.
The figures were included in a recently released report from Correctional Service Canada (CSC) on international transfers of offenders.
Experts say the numbers show a preference among offenders to do time in Canada because of better prison conditions, better access to treatment and programs and a more "sensible" sentencing regime.
Mary Campbell, former director general for corrections and criminal justice at the Department of Public Safety, said many Canadian offenders come back to be closer to family and friends.
'Draconian' sentencing laws
But there are other factors at play, including "draconian" sentencing laws in the U.S. and some other countries which impose harsher penalties and strict conditions on release eligibility. Many penitentiaries south of the border are struggling with race issues and warring gangs, Campbell said.
"American prisons are generally not very nice places. They don't have a lot of programs, they're crowded," she said.
"It's not that Canadian prisons are any paradise, but relatively speaking, you're more likely to get some programs, some treatment, whether it's for addiction or mental health."
Of the 251 Canadian prisoners transferred home over the last five years, 202 came from the U.S. prison system. Others were transferred from prisons in Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Over that same period, only nine offenders incarcerated in Canada were transferred out — three to the U.K., two to Germany and one each to Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the U.S.
Transfer approvals up
Campbell said requests piled up when the Conservatives were in power because the government was delaying processing applications.
The report shows that the backlog was addressed in 2013-2014, with 168 decisions rendered. Seventy of those transfer applications were denied.
In 2016-2017, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office made 115 transfer application decisions; only one was rejected.
Goodale's spokesman Scott Bardsley argued the Conservatives' "ideological approach" to transfers is an example of the previous government's criminal justice agenda putting communities at greater risk.
"Our government understands that transferring offenders to serve their sentences in Canada can help ensure that they are properly rehabilitated subject to supervision and controls, and that we have a record of their foreign convictions," he said.
"Canadian offenders whose sentences expire in foreign jurisdictions are immediately deported to Canada and released into Canadian communities with no record of their convictions, no assurance of proper rehabilitation, and no opportunity to safely and gradually manage their reintegration. This could put Canadians at risk."
Bringing sex offenders home, he said, also ensures that they comply with the sex offenders registry.
Debating the 'best interests of Canadians'
Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus defended the Harper government's record, saying his party believes people who commit serious crimes in other countries must be held to account.
"Rather than automatically approving applications for prisoners to serve their sentences in Canada at the expense of Canadian taxpayers, the previous Conservative government made decisions on a case-by-case basis as to what was in the best interests of Canadians," he said.
Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, said it's typically in Canada's best interests to accept prisoner transfers because, in most cases, they'll be sent home at the end of their sentences anyway.
"We either take them early and spend a bit of time trying to reintegrate them into Canadian society in terms of programs in prisons, supervision on parole or statutory release, or they simply get dumped into Canadian society without any controls," he said.
In all, there were 870 applications for transfers over the last five years (817 from Canadians incarcerated in foreign countries and 54 from foreign nationals in Canada), but the process can take many months or years to complete.
Every transfer must have the consent of the offender, the sending country and recipient country. Canada has transfer agreements or treaties with 112 countries.
Figures provided by CSC show there are now 542 non-Canadians in federal custody, and another 184 offenders whose citizenship is unknown.
According to Global Affairs Canada, there are 1,339 Canadians detained abroad, including:
- 824 in the U.S.
- 276 in Asia/Oceania.
- 117 in the Americas.
- 79 in Europe.
- 43 in Africa/Middle East.