Justice council shows bite taken by Tories’ new prison policy

  • February 3, 2011
Prison graphicBuilding on an October letter from Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is trying to galvanize opposition to Conservative justice and corrections policies by showing how much it’s going to cost to jail people for longer periods.

The council, which includes the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops among 11 national churches, sent its own letter to Harper just before Christmas. It repeats Gordon’s argument against tough-on-crime legislation.

“Your policy is applying a costly prison response to people involved in the courts who are non-violent offenders, or to repeat offenders who are mentally ill and/or addicted, the majority of whom are not classified as high risk. These offenders are disproportionately poor, ill-equipped to learn, from the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups,” said the letter.

Neither the council nor Gordon have received a substantial reply.

In e-mails sent out to pastors and Church officials, the council is distributing graphics that lay out statistics about the cost and scope of the crime legislation. The council is asking that their ready-made inserts be included in parish bulletins or otherwise put in the hands of church-goers.

Lorraine Berzins, community chair of justice for the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, said the group wants an about face on new prison building and legislation that would fill new jails with more criminals.

“This is a critical time when all this money is about to be poured into something that is so clearly a destructive direction,” Berzins said.

The council is trying to get people beyond emotional and theoretical arguments by having them look at concrete facts — including the numbers of prisoners who are mentally ill, addicted or without job skills, said Berzins.

“We know that there are people who, on a theoretical level, would say we need to express our moral outrage against certain things in stronger terms and prison sentences sound like the right way to do that. We don’t think they’re well informed,” she said.

Nor does Berzins believe all church-goers are onside with the council.

“It’s because we know that not everyone is on board with that that we need to get the word out more broadly,” she said.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told The Catholic Register he is unaware of Church opposition to mandatory minimum sentences or other policies that would keep prisoners in jail longer.

Toews reiterated that additional prison capacity to accommodate extra prisoners will cost $2 billion over five years. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has estimated operating an extra 4,000 prison cells will cost $5 billion per year — not including initial construction costs.

"The significant resources (approximately $2 billion over five years) provided to the Correctional Service of Canada to implement its short-term plan will ensure that offenders serve sentences that reflect the severity of their crimes," said Correctional Service spokeswoman Lori Pothier in an e-mail.

The church council has taken the right tack in pointing out the cost of keeping people in jail, said Liberal Public Safety critic Mark Holland.

“One of the most compelling arguments to be made is cost,” he said.

When they learn of the costs, most people will want a convincing argument that more, longer and harsher sentences really will make communities safer, said Holland.

“It’s bad enough that it’s expensive,” he said. “But when it doesn’t work I think we really have to take pause.”

Holland also urges the churches to make a moral argument, where he sees eye-to-eye with NDP Public Safety critic Don Davies.

“When you have a policy that is pursued that will cost you a lot of money, won’t give you the results you want and it’s actually immoral, I think any well-intentioned, reasonable legislator of good faith would look seriously at that policy,” said Davies.

If they can pull it off, getting parishes to distribute the statistical handouts is a brilliant strategy, said Veritas Communications chief media strategist Bob Reid. But while the handouts will get attention from the government, it doesn’t mean the Conservatives are about to change their minds on crime and punishment.

“It’s highly unlikely that this would lead to a major sea change in Conservative policy on this, because it’s a fundamental issue for them,” said Reid.

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