Debates about whether approaches to crime and corrections in Canada are too soft or too tough are ongoing and endemic.
While the partisan debate continues unabated, the real issue is why prisons disproportionately house our most vulnerable citizens.
While all those Canadians who live beneath the poverty line are by no means associated with criminal activity, almost all those in Canada’s prisons come from beneath the poverty line. Less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent. There is no political ideology, on the right or left, that would make the case that people living in poverty belong in jail.
Statistics underscore the bleak link between poverty and incarceration. While aboriginals, many mired in poverty, represent 4 per cent of Canada’s population, they make up almost 20 per cent of those in federal prisons. A study by Toronto Star journalists unfortunately makes the point. Sandro Contenta and Jim Rankin, in an impressive 2008 feature for the Star, reviewed thousands of pages of data concerning crime and those caught up in the system. They noted that:
• More than 70 per cent of those who enter prisons have not completed high school.
• Seventy per cent of offenders entering prisons have unstable job histories.
• Four of every five arrive with serious substance-abuse problems.
• A Toronto study of 300 homeless adults found 73 per cent of men had been arrested and 49 per cent of them incarcerated at least once. Twelve per cent of women had served time.
In a modern, competitive and compassionate society like ours, these numbers are unacceptable. If Canadians want to wage an effective war on crime we must first reshape the debate. If crime abatement is the goal, it is time for all Canadians and their governments to become tough on poverty. By doing so, the outcomes we all want — safer communities and diminishing prison populations — will follow.
Not only would this approach — best achieved through the establishment of a needs-based, refundable income tax credit for all Canadians (a guaranteed annual income, or GAI) — prove more effective, it would also be cheaper. At a time of government restraint, prisoners are, in a word, expensive. With all costs factored in, Canadians spend more than $147,000 per prisoner in federal custody each year.
By contrast, it would take between $12,000 and $20,000 annually to bring a person in Canada above the poverty line. Even at the high end of the GAI scale, this represents savings to taxpayers of $127,000 per federal prisoner each year. Those are figures that should be of interest to any federal or provincial finance minister — of any party background.
The most famous call for a Canadian GAI was issued 40 years ago by Senator David Croll. It was 1971 when his Senate committee on poverty issued its report.
“Poverty is the great social issue of our time,” Croll wrote. “The poor do not choose poverty. It is at once their affliction and our national shame. No nation can achieve true greatness if it lacks the courage and determination to undertake the surgery necessary to remove the cancer of poverty from its body politic.”
Both Conservative and Liberal federal governments have ignored this proposal ever since. In the years following, the expert calls for a GAI have only increased. The Macdonald Royal Commission challenged Canadians to take a “leap of faith” and embrace free trade with the United States in 1985. It also stated unequivocally that a universal income security program is “the essential building block” for social security programs in the 21st century.
What anyone who studies Canada’s prisons understands — be they from the right, left or centre of the political landscape — is that current approaches are not working. Whether or not one believes crime is decreasing, reducing the pipeline that feeds poverty is the best public policy. Police chiefs with whom I have spoken all agree that their areas of greatest challenge are not the better off parts of town. To be tough on crime means we must first be tough on the causes of poverty.