Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Elizabeth Comack, "Whose Law and What Order?" Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, July 16, 2008.


While Canadians might believe that we imprison fewer people than other countries do, internationally Canada has one of the highest incarceration rates after the United States and Russia. In 2000, Canada imprisoned its population at a rate of 118 per 100,000 people, compared to a European average of 84. The rate of incarceration in provincial prisons has risen 102 percent since the 1980s. In 2004/05, adult correctional service expenditures in Canada totalled $2.8 billion. The largest proportion (71 percent) of those monies was spent on prisons (CAEFS 2007; Beattie 2006). And just so we’re clear on this: imprisonment is an expensive strategy. Accordingto the Correctional Service of Canada (2005), it costs $110,223 per year to incarcerate a man in a maximum security prison, and $150,867 per year to incarcerate a woman in a federal prison.

The resort to incarceration becomes even more troubling when you consider that — contrary to popular belief — crime rates have actually been declining in recent years. The national crime rate reached its lowest point in over 25 years in 2006, having decreased by about 30 percent since peaking in 1991. The vast majority of criminal offences (about 48%) involve crimes against property; only 13 percent involve violent crime (Silver 2007). While most of the decline in the crime rate has been due to non-violent offences, homicides also declined by 10 percent (from 663 in 2005 to 605 in 2006) (Li 2007).

Yet, despite the drop in the crime rate, calls to ‘get tough on crime’ have been growing louder these days. We can’t seem to open a newspaper without reading of yet another story about the threat of crime and of the harsh measures that the capitalist state is taking to address this threat. Most recently, the Conservative government passed legislation designed to impose tougher mandatory prison terms for crimes involving guns, tougher bail laws, and tougher rules for repeat offenders — all of which will have the effect of exacerbating the already high rates of imprisonment in Canada.

However, as the radical criminologists were so quick to point out in the 1970s, this ‘get tough on crime’ talk is not directed at the corporate executives who swindle and defraud the public, pollute the environment, maintain unsafe work places, or manufacture faulty products. In this regard, the incarceration of the Conrad Blacks or Martha Stewarts of the corporate world garners media attention more because they are the exception rather than the rule. So we need to be clear: all of this talk of ‘getting tough on crime’ and calls for more ‘law and order’ are really being directed at the poor and the marginalized.

Statistics regularly tell us that the vast majority of people incarcerated in Canada’s jails are economically marginalized. Almost half of all prisoners held in provincial custody were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Almost one-third of all prisoners have less than a grade 10 education (Statistics Canada 2001). And here we need to acknowledge that this resort to incarceration has not only a class, but also a racial character.


In the Canadian context, the racial character is most starkly evident in the over-representation of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian prisons. Although Aboriginal peoples made up just 3 percent of the Canadian population in 2005, they accounted for 22 percent of admissions to provincial jails and 17 percent of admissions to federal prisons. Their overrepresentation is most acute in the Prairie Provinces. In Manitoba, Aboriginal peoples made up only 11 percent of the population and a whopping 70 percent of sentenced custody admissions in 2005 (Beattie 2006). And Aboriginal women are even more over-represented in Canada’s jails than their male counterparts (Finn et al. 1999). For instance, they consistently make up over 70 percent of the women prisoners held at the Portage jail. Similar to the way that the prison has taken over the function of the ghetto as an instrument of control and containment for Black people in the States, prisons in Canada have become for many young Aboriginal people the contemporary equivalent of what the Indian residential school represented for their parents (Jackson 1989:216).

The full text of this speech is available here => (pdf, 7pp)
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