Foolish $9 Billion Plan to Build New Jails

If you live in a rural area, as many of us in this area do, you’ll maybe know the old saying, “the (insert name fruit or vegetable here) want picking.” Well, I’ve got rows of beans that “want picking,” and hundreds of pounds of potatoes virtually crying out from underground to, “please, please, please dig us up soon or heaven knows what we’ll do.”

Then, of course, I have to find a market for this far-more-than-bumper harvest, thanks to the lush growing season. Like, we’ve got zucchinis coming out the wazzoo, or whatever, if you know what I mean. Anyway, this wind-up is all about explaining why I have to keep what follows short: I’m hearing voices from the garden, urgent cries of, “Phil, hurry, we need you.”

My long suffering editors will be glad to hear that. There is at least one, possibly more, hired to edit my weekly column.

Well, I exaggerate, or certainly bend the truth a little . . . Okay, I bend it completely. I admit it.

But I’m not the only one doing that these days, for rhetorical effect, in my case here, or in the case of the Government of Canada and Treasury Board Chairman Stockwell Day, for ideological purposes. At least that’s what the news media calls it. I call it buying votes from your core, social conservative constituency, those people who watch too many crime shows on TV and end up mistaking them for reality, as in there’s a criminal lurking behind every bush, or around every corner, just waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of ineffective or overworked police, or our “hug-a-thug” judicial system.

Day, a former leader of the Reform-Canadian Alliance Party of Canada, and would-be Prime Minister, was once famous, or infamous, for jet-skiing in a wet suit across a lake somewhere in western Canada, as I recall, to make an important political announcement on a beach on the eve of a federal election. Then, having done that, he was off across the lake again, leaving a visually troubling spout of water in his wake. Something about that image struck a lot of Canadians as just too bizarre on some subliminal level, and he failed, thank goodness, to win the election. He was soon replaced by Stephen Harper, who went on to evolve into the leader of the newest and more successful repackaging of Canada’s political right in the form of the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Harper-led Conservatives have managed to form two minority governments, partly because he’s smart enough to keep the extremists under wraps lest they frighten too many sensible Canadians; but have no doubt, dear reader, they are there. (Reform-Canadian Alliance devoured the once-proud Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and spit out “Progressive” for a reason.)

Now Day is a star in the cabinet of Prime Minister Harper, and someone Canada’s control-freak PM apparently thought he could trust to handle a press conference on his own. But the national media doesn’t always follow the prescribed government script: the group of Ottawa-based journalists, like all good reporters, sometimes ask questions that probe below the surface of what the government has to say.

So, in the midst of a press conference about winding down the government’s economic-stimulus, Action Plan, and embarking on a period of fiscal restraint, Day was asked why the Harper Conservative’s were planning to spend billions of dollars to build new jails at a time when the crime rate is declining. His answer, that the government is worried about the high rate of “unreported” crime, has gone viral, made him a Canadian YouTube star, and threatens to make him famous for something other than an unfortunate trip on a jet ski.

In fairness, I must admit, I was surprised by the high proportion of crimes that never get reported to police, at least according to the latest (2004) statistics, as cited by Day. Those, showing just 37 percent of crimes are actually reported to police for investigation, are due to be updated this fall. That number may go up, or it may go down. But in the meantime, those statistics are far too old in this hi-tech Information Age for the Harper government to hang its jail-expansion hat on. It has other reasons for building more jails in connection with its get-tough-on crime agenda: it plans to set tougher mandatory sentences, and take away much of the discretion judges now have regarding the length of time they send people to jail.

But here’s the problem. Those “unreported” crimes are largely minor offences, that wouldn’t get people sentenced to anything near federal terms of two-plus years in jail. Meanwhile, the other Conservative justice-system reforms will put an even larger disproportionate number of Canada’s Aboriginal and poor people in jail, compared with the overall population.

That raises the question that separates the ideology of the right-wing, Harper Conservative government from the other, more enlightened side of the political spectrum: Is jail the right place to put more people convicted of criminal offences?

I’d be just as quick as anyone to say by all means put violent, dangerous and offenders behind bars so free and law-abiding citizens can get on safely with their lives. But otherwise, incarceration is a two-edged sword. If governments haven’t learned by now that jails, and especially federal penitentiaries, are schools of crime then we are in big trouble.  Just look across the border.

In the past three decades the number of people in jail in the U.S. has increased dramatically, from less than 500,000 to 2.3 million, or .75 percent of country’s total population, the highest documented rate of incarceration in the world, and still rising. In the U.S. jails and mega-jails are a growth industry. Is the U.S world-famous as a law-abiding society? Is that what we want in this country? I hope not.

So, what is the Harper government’s $9 billion plan to build new jails really about?

It’s about buying votes in the next federal election and making sure its core, social conservative constituency, with its unrealistic and simplistic view of crime running rampant, is primed to vote Conservative. You can expect to see more right-wing nonsense from this government, like the decision to cancel the mandatory, long census form. They’re signs an election call is coming soon.

Ah, the mind boggles at the foolishness of it all. I’m going out to pick beans.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

 

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