Once a criminal, always a criminal

Edward Greenspan and Anthony Doob get tough on the Harper government’s “tough on crime” approach to justice policy.

Imprisoning a few thousand more people may prevent the few street crimes they might have committed had they not been incarcerated, but what about the impact of imprisonment on the chances of their reoffending after release? The data comparing recidivism rates for former inmates with those for offenders given non-prison punishments demonstrates conclusively that incarceration does not decrease reoffending. In fact, for some offenders — notably those sent to prison for the first time — it may increase it. Averting a few crimes while convicts serve their sentences in prison doesn’t help if more crimes are committed when they are released.

But this is not about policy; it’s about politics. Advocating for “tough on offenders” bills makes for good bumper stickers and sound bites, even if it violates one of the government’s economic principles: that public money should not be spent on programs that do not advance its stated goals. Keeping a single inmate in federal penitentiary costs about $117,000 per year; a provincial inmate about $58,000. Money spent on incarceration is money not spent on services (the police, education, public health, and so on) that the evidence suggests would be more effective at reducing crime.

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