Tag Archives: restorative justice

The Pursuit and Perils of Prisons for Profit

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a Nashville-based privately owned company, has made a sweet-sounding offer to corrections officials in 48 American states: “We’ll buy your prisons and run them, if you guarantee us a 90% occupancy rate for the next 20 years.”

The statement is at once absurd and rational.

Absurd because it dismisses human suffering, be it that of victims or that of prisoners, to one side of an equation in the market place.

More bodies equal more income.

Greater imprisonment becomes a pre-condition for profit.

For the same reason, the statement is rational.  Why else get into the business of running prisons, if not to make large profits?

But imprisonment rates should not be a function of profit-making for private or public bodies.

Because rehabilitation has proven to be largely ineffective in our overcrowded, oppressive, and resource-scarce prisons, punishment is the only remaining excuse behind imprisonment.

Since the aim of imprisonment is punishment by the state, the burden should rest with the state.

Privatize jails and we abdicate our (albeit abysmal) responsibility to how we run jails.  We can blame a third-party for filthy cells covered in urine and feces, for the spread of diseases (which will eventually reach the rest of the population), for the lock-downs that force people into crammed cells for more than 20 hours a day, and for the physical and sexual abuse that take place.

But we (the state) are the ones who deal with our collective social problems with “deviant” behaviour by banishing people into isolation and destructive environments.  So we should bear the responsibility for those persons while they are in our institutions (and when they get out.)

Even in the absence of moral objections to prisons for profit, there is reason to flee from prison privatization. Currently, all signs point in one direction: private prisons are worse than public ones.

Here are some of the proven dangers:

1)  Corruption and kickbacks:

The fact that privately-run jails increase their profits through greater imprisonment opens the door for undue influence and corruption, whereby state officials, including judges, could send people to jail for personal gain.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened with two Pennsylvania judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., who sent thousands of young persons to two privately-run jails and secured millions of dollars in kickbacks.  Many of those young people were first time “offenders,” such as a 17-year-old exemplary student who set up a spoof MySpace page that mocked the assistant principal of her school.  She got three months in jail.

Another young person, a 17-year-old star athlete, was found with drug paraphernalia.  Ciavarella sentenced him to several months of jail and a “wilderness camp.”  He missed his entire senior year and, according to his mother, never got over the ordeal.  He committed suicide at the age of 23.[i]

Ciavarella also locked up a young person who had stolen a jar of nut-meg, and one 10-year-old.

2)  Health and safety failures:

It’s not that provincially and federally-run prisons operate at desirable health and safety standards; it’s that privately-run ones fair so much worse.  A  CCA-owned prison in Ohio at once violated 47 health and safety standards.  Among those violations: no local fire plan to deal with inmates from locked areas in case of emergencies.[ii]

3)  Greater abuse:

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, whether at the hands of jail guards or other prisoners, happen in state-run prisoners, as well.  But the abuses are likely to be worse in private prisons.  Inadequate training, understaffing, health and safety risks, unsanitary cells, lack of access to medical doctors or to therapists, and insufficient “recreation” time increase tension levels.  Staff will feel less safe.  These conditions make jails ripe for abuse.

The shocking actions of staff at one Mississippi Youth Detention Centre, Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, was at the centre of a recent lawsuit.  Drug smuggling by correctional workers and sexual and physical assault of the young prisoners were just some of the horrific instances of abuse of power that took place occurred at Walnut Grove.[iii]

4)  Offenders may get out even worse than when they leave state prisons:

There is plenty of proof that prisoners, especially young ones, leave jail in worse condition than before, and that many are likely to recommit offences.   This problem will be exacerbated when jail conditions are worse, when there is greater abuse, less access to education, and less counseling and therapy.

5) The ultimate cost to society is much higher:

While governments may enjoy a brief windfall when they sell prisons to third-parties, society will pay a greater and more significant long-term cost: greater mental health problems, greater recidivism, more disease, inadequate levels of education and training, potentially more expensive law-suits, the list goes on.  Every flaw and every evil associated with imprisonment will multiply.

In the end, a strategy with the aim of reducing costs short-term could make everyone bankrupt, both financially and morally.

6) Diminished incentive to explore and implement alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice and other initiatives that require would decrease imprisonment:

If a government is locked into a 20-year contract to supply a firm with commoditized people, then how can they honestly implement processes that might result in a breach of that contract?

Despite the many problems with private prisons in American jails, the trend doesn’t seem to be stopping, as evidenced by CCA’s recent offer to 48 American states to buy their correctional facilities in exchange for certain guarantees by the state.

At least one firm has seized the opportunity to knock on Canadian government doors for business opportunities in prisons.

If we don’t watch out, the same problems could reach us here, in Canada.

With the closure of Kingston Penitentiary, and the expected increase in our prison population, which will result directly from the “tough-on-crime” changes made by the current government, we in Canada will see a rise in the cost of maintaining our prisons.

With a government whose rhetoric, at least, is focused on less public spending, one wonders how all these added and mounting costs will be covered.

Could some of these costs be ultimately “covered” through privatization?  Correctional Services of Canada has urged Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, to consider the privatization of at least some services, such as cleaning and food preparation in federal institutions.  GEO Group, the very “enterprise” that ran the Walnut Grove facility where young people were sexually assaulted by the staff, met with Mr. Toews last October and lobbied the government to privatize its jails, or at least some portion of its penitentiaries services.[iv]

Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Vic Toews, has said, “We have no appetite to pursue fully privatized prisons.”[v]  But that begs the question, “What are you considering privatizing?”

Despite claims by the Canadian government that it is not considering the privatization of prisons, the current trend in the criminal justice system seem to carve a different path—one ripe for handing over the responsibility for running jails to companies focused on making a million bucks.

Perhaps it’s reassuring that our one affair with private prisons (in Penetanguishene) was a short-lived one. But people also have a habit of flirting with failed experiments, in part because we forget, in part because we don’t pay attention, in part because of the misguided notion that “saving money” is both just and not costly, in the long run.

Mostly, however, so long as we believe that it is morally justifiable to treat human life, liberty and dignity as simply a function of the market equation, we will manipulate it, dispense with it, and mistreat it, just as we always have.

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Reducing Court Congestion Is Easy

[1]The examples below are based on actual incidents from around Toronto, but names and other information about  individuals have been changed to preserve their identity.

Sheena, Farzaneh and a third classmate were walking in the crowded halls of their junior high,  joking around with one another.  Sheena and Farzaneh grabbed Kim’s scarf and threw it to one another.  After Sheena threw it, she did not see what happened to the scarf, the bell rang, and the girls went into their classroom.  Kim could not find her scarf.  Upset, she reported it to a teacher.  The police were called, and Sheena and Farzaneh were both charged with theft.

Sahir and James were Grade 9 high school friends.  One day, for no clear reason, they removed one of the school’s fire extinguishers and sprayed it all over an empty portable classroom.  The police were called and Sahir and James were both charged with possession of stolen property (the fire extinguisher) and with mischief.

Mira told the police that Katrina, a landed immigrant, a wife, and a mother of two children, aged 7 and 5, hit and broke her camera at a cultural event attended by hundreds of people.  The damages were estimated at $500.00.   Without conducting any further investigation, the police went to Katrina’s home, and violently arrested her in front of her two young children.   Katrina was charged with mischief.  After a year-and-a-half in the criminal justice system, tremendous hardship, and lasting psychological harm to Katrina’s children who became fearful of the police, the Crown Attorney withdrew her charges.

In a different time, in a different place, all of these interactions might have been dealt with reasonably, rationally, and by the community.

In the lost scarf scenario, the teachers, the principal or even Kim’s parents, might have sat down with Sheena and Farzaneh, found out if the incident was truly an accident or a case of excessive teasing.  They might have talked to Sheena and Farzaneh’s parents, and enlisted everyone’s help in finding or replacing the scarf.  They might have engaged in the kind of conversation that would have helped Sheena and Farzaneh see the impact of their actions, especially if they were bullying Kim.  Kim would have felt heard and empowered, and Sheena and Farzaneh would have helped in the healing.

Sahir and James may have received a stern talk from the principal and their parents.  Maybe they would have been grounded.  Maybe they would have been suspended for a couple of days.  They would have helped with the clean-up of the classroom and perhaps paid for any damages.  They would have, in real terms, been responsible for their actions.  And they would have continued their studies, without the stigma of a criminal charge.

In Katrina and Mira’s case, the police could have investigated the case further, instead of attacking and arresting Katrina in her home, in front of her children.  They could have easily found out that another person claimed responsibility for bumping into the camera; and that it was an accident.  They could have simply called in Katrina, who would have gone into the police station and told them her version of the events.  There was no need to treat her so violently.

In all of the above scenarios, the community and the police had several options available to them to deal with each case comprehensively, responsibly, and in a way that would have satisfied everyone, without causing further harm.  Instead, everyone abdicated their own responsibility and immediately opted to use a sledgehammer to kill an ant.

Everyone reached for their guns.

Sheena and Farzaneh, two young girls who had never been in trouble with the law before, were now viewed as “criminals.”  They had to take time off school to appear in court several times.  They were dragged through the criminal justice system.  Police time, court time and legal aid, all limited resources, were wasted on the kind of thing that many view as normal, if undesirable teenage behaviour.

Sahir and James, neither of whom had a criminal record, also got their first taste of an expensive and at times disorganized criminal justice system.  Rather than feel responsible for their actions, they felt the heavy hand of the law and the unfairness of a disproportionate response to their actions- actions which, again, at different times, would have been dismissed as “boys will be boys,” as letting off steam.  Actions which did not harm any one individual.  While we don’t have to excuse or dismiss negative behaviour by young men, there are surely other means of dealing with Sahir and James’s actions than criminalizing them and having their case occupy the criminal justice system for well over a year.

And yet, while every one of us, citizens and politicians, complain about the amount of time and money it takes to get issues resolved in courts, no one is willing to take the simplest, most rational, most sensible step:

To really reduce congestion in the courts, we’ve got to have less cases enter the system, in the first place.

Some cases just don’t belong in the criminal justice system.

There are more effective, more humane, and cheaper ways to deal with some problems.

But instead, we blame not having enough resources.  Instead, we blame defence lawyers for standing up for their clients’ rights and ensuring that our legal system does not become abusive.  Instead, we make laws that widen the net that traps people into the justice system.  Instead, we make mandatory minimum sentences, which will result in more people opting for a trial, as opposed to pleading guilty, therefore clogging the system more.  Instead, we take away money from those programs (such as restorative justice ones) designed to resolve conflicts in more meaningful ways that cost less, have greater positive impact, and are less punitive.

Think about it: if you want to reduce hospital and health costs and wait time resulting from smoking, would you hand out more cigarettes, make them easier for young people to obtain, build more hospitals, or would you invest in preventing smoking, in the first place?

If you want to reduce congestion on the roads, would you take away the bicycle lanes, make a rule that everyone has to drive to work, reduce public transit services, or would you make it easier for people to get to their destination without having to drive?

The most effective way to reduce any kind of traffic is to deal with the problem at the point of entry.  Everyone of us, and in particular actors in the criminal justice system, need to take responsibility for this.

Parents and educators must demand that schools and the police make greater efforts to teach, preach and practice conflict resolution skills.  Let’s not waste resources by calling the police for every lost or broken item.  Let’s abandon our zero-tolerance policy toward any aberrant act.  Let’s focus on meaningful options for conflict resolution.

Our police should also be trained to avoid laying charges, where the actions are minor and where other, more effective forms of conflict resolution exist and can be helpful.  Any criminal lawyer can make a long list of cases where clients were charged with petty offences for actions that were hardly dangerous and that can be dealt with better in other ways.  Any criminal lawyer can tell you of cases he or she had where, had the police conducted a fuller investigation, they may not have charged the client.  Any criminal lawyer can make a list of cases where there was barely any reliable evidence against their client.

Once the police charge these people, the cases enter the criminal justice system and stay there–rotting, delaying justice, labeling, stigmatizing, and frustrating accused and victims alike.

Crown Attorneys generally do not have the time and sometimes lack the courage, at an early stage, to just pull out cases that don’t belong in the courts.  Their policies and directions need to change, as well.  That is a crucial step in reducing court congestion.

As a community, we need to be ready to deal with conflicts through mediation and other restorative justice means.  As educators, we need to teach young people to understand the impact of their actions and be accountable.  We need to help victims feel heard and empowered.  We need to help accused persons feel connected and capable of making other choices.

We need to make everyone responsible for the solution, rather just hold the criminal justice system responsible for everyone’s failures.

We need to train our officers to solve conflicts more peacefully and collaboratively, to speak, engage, build trust and help find solutions.  And we need to give Crown Attorneys the time, the direction, and the freedom to examine files early on, to determine if the case before them belongs in the criminal justice system, in the first place, and to determine if it should be resolved through alternative means.

It turns out that the best and easiest way to reduce court congestion is also the most sensible, the most ethical, and the most responsible option.  We need the political will to implement it.  And the political will will come only when voters demand it.


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Stop This Bus, Mr. Oliver

Dear Mr. Oliver,

I imagine that if you are a proponent of the Omnibus Crime Bill, then you believe that it speaks for victims.  If your goal is to help victims, to allow them to heal faster, and to ensure that there are fewer victims, then I urge you to engage your colleagues and other members of the Conservative Party to abandon this Bill.

No doubt you are familiar with the many arguments against this Crime Bill.  There is, of course, the fact that higher jail terms and mandatory incarceration are not going to reduce crime or recidivism.  What is more, incarceration, particularly of people who have little or no criminal history or have not been jailed in the past is likely to increase their chances of recidivism.  These are the conclusions reached by study after study that deal with punishment and crime.  This consideration, alone, tells us that the Bill is, at best, a waste of resources.

But the Omnibus Crime Bill is more than misguided.  It is also enormously costly.  How can we justify the billions of dollars that will be spent on what is purely a mechanism for punishment, when our and the world’s economies are in such precarious positions, and when so many of our fundamental institutions are in need of support?  How can a government that advocates lower spending throw billions of dollars away in this manner?

You might say that it does not matter if the Bill does not reduce recidivism.  You might argue that the cost of the Bill in insignificant when one considers victims’ rights.

If we truly care about victims, let’s take the two steps that are the most likely to help.

If we truly care about victims, if we want to ensure that they feel secure, healed, and empowered, let’s invest in programs and processes that help them heal, feel secure and empowered.  Seeing a perpetrator thrown in jail may make people feel that justice has been done, but it does not take away their fear, it does not make them feel secure.

Punishment, throwing people in jail, and looking away, do not make victims feel that they have been heard, or that their loss has, at least, had some positive impact.

But we do have processes that are proven to help victims heal, that include the victim in a meaningful way, and that help victims feel that justice has been done in a way that no harsh sentence and law can.  Restorative justice and victim-offender reconciliation programs are powerful and effective means of meeting the needs of victims, while holding offenders accountable for their actions.  If we only take a portion of the money required to bring the Crime

Bill into effect and put it toward restorative justice efforts, then we are sure to help victims.  What is more, restorative justice is more likely to reduce recidivism, and it will cost much less than the billions of dollars required by this Bill.

Furthermore, rather than focusing on retribution and incarceration, we can take steps that ensure that we have less victims, in the first place.  Let’s invest in education, in the health of children, in support for young people and for  families, in particular families who live in poverty.  Let’s invest in prevention of crime, so that we have less victims.

There is nothing good in a Bill that creates mandatory minimums, removes discretion from judges who have heard all the facts of a case and the circumstances surrounding the facts, focuses simply on punishment, doesn’t do anything to reduce crime, and takes billions of dollars from Canadians and essentially throws it away.

I ask you to please listen to all the criticisms against this Bill.  I urge you to dissuade your colleagues from supporting this destructive project.  It cannot be easy to stop this fast-moving train, but conscience and ethics demand that you do what is required to stop this Bill.

I hope that I can count on you, my Member of Parliament, to do whatever is possible to take this Bill off the legislative table.

Dyanoosh Youssefi

Eglinton-Lawrence resident

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Justice for Victims: Less Jail Time, More Face Time

While the Federal Conservative government is spending billions of dollars to build more prisons, to jail more people, and to punish with greater vengeance, all in the name of tackling crime and of justice for victims, the province of Alberta apparently cannot come up with a measly $351,000 for the one measure that is proven to actually help victims and possibly to reduce crime: victim-offender reconciliation.

Alberta’s Public Security Department announced on Monday that it is ending the annual $351,000 grant for restorative justice programs, allegedly because economic times are tough.

Victim-offender reconciliation (V.O.R.), a form of restorative justice, is one of the most effective and humane means of dealing with crime. It involves mediated or facilitated meetings between offenders and victims. The aim of V.O.R. is, on the one hand, to ensure that offenders comprehend the full human impact of their actions, and that they voluntarily –and genuinely–take some responsibility for those actions. Equally significant, reconciliations help victims cope with their trauma and reduce their fears by humanizing the offender. They help victims move on with their lives. When done right, victim-offender reconciliations may even lead to the wondrous result of the victims helping the offenders overcome those life obstacles that lead them to commit the crimes.

If politicians truly care about victims and want justice for victims, they must look beyond the impulsive urge for punishment for the sake of punishment. They must look at processes that in fact make victims feel whole and restored. Harsh imprisonment may satisfy a desire for “justice” as revenge, but it does not bring about true justice. It never helps victims actually cope with their trauma. Yet incarceration and punishment continue to be the reckless and irrational mission of law-and-order governments.

Furthermore, as a society, we continue to use avoidance and punishment to deal with problems and conflicts that, in fact, require conversation, reflection, commitment, responsibility and empathy.

In its essence, crime is the infliction of pain (sometimes horrible and tragic) by one person on another. Friends sometimes do this to each other, though on a different scale. It is true that when wronged by a friend, some people choose avoidance and simply cut off a relationship. But we know that the better and more effective way of dealing with that pain is to confront the friend and to communicate with them. Why would it be any different if some other human being causes us pain? Why would we choose avoidance and punishment, rather than communication and resolution? Why would we not seek to open the doors to victim-offender reconciliation?

The path of victim-offender reconciliation is not easy- least of all for the offender. It is demanding. It can be emotionally draining and gruelling. It compels the offender to deal with his actions and their consequences, rather than bury the memories, ignore responsibility, or rationalize his behaviour. It impels the offender to make amends, thereby helping the victim and improving his own life. And because V.O.R. forces the offender to confront the victim, and mobilizes everyone to deal with the underlying issues that lead to the criminal behaviour, it is effective.

After all, what is more likely to reduce recidivism: an authentic, deep and personal examination of one’s actions, their consequences, and the acceptance of responsibility, or a jail cell where an offender is taught little conflict management or other skills? What is more likely to empower victims and to help offenders change direction: a process that encourages everyone to tackle the underlying factors that lead to the crime, or a prison sentence where the offender develops bonds with others who are also leading a life of crime? The benefits of restorative justice to the victim who heals emotionally and to the offender who humanizes his victim are simply greater than any money-saving measure.

And while it is difficult to measure what the cost savings are, surely reconciliation is more cost-effective than imprisonment. The cost of incarceration is extremely high, ranging from $89,000 to $250,000 per year. This cost does not include the eventual costs to society of unemployable, beaten or unstable individuals, once they are released from jail.

But “law-and-order” politicians and our current Conservative government continue to charge anyone who opposes the backward and Draconian push for more jails and longer sentences as being “soft on crime.” They regularly accuse detractors of not caring about victims.

If we truly care about victims, however, we must help them cope and heal. Victim-offender reconciliation programs across North America have proven that the process of restorative justice can do just that, in a way that no tough sentence alone can ever do.

According to the CBC and the Edmonton Journal, the $351,000 per year grant (the equivalent of incarcerating two inmates for one year) helped victims and offenders in 218 criminal cases in one single year (2009). With each case bringing together at least one offender and often more than one victim as well as mediators, the $351,000 helped over 436 victims and offenders, and brought together 1000 or more people. Try stuffing that in a jail cell.

(To read the reflections of an ex-offender on restorative justice and the London riots, see this article: Restorative Justice After the Riots?)

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