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Prison Paradox

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 8, 2011

Prior to the election, the Harper government announced that it was planning a huge spending project to increase the capacity of Canadian prisons. This got me to wonder…I have had numerous discussions and debates with friends about the ‘crime problem’… as in I did not see one. According to every stat, the crime rate has been dropping since the 90s. If the crime rate has been dropping, then why do we need more prisons?

First, we should address the issue is the crime rate REALLY going down or is this some aberration of statistics. According to Statistics Canada, the crime rate breaks down like this:

All these numbers are per hundred thousand

All crime     – 1960 = 2,771; 1977 = 5,038; 1991 = 7,219; 2006 = 4,539

Violent crime – 1960 =   221; 1977 =   572; 1991 = 1,059; 2006 =   951

Homicides     – 1960 =   1.3; 1975 =  3.03; 1991 =   2.7; 2006 =   1.9

Rates of Crime 1962-2006

The numbers show that in 2009, the crime rate was 17% lower than a decade ago. There is also a 20% decrease in the Crime Severity Index. The Crime Severity Index takes into account not only the change in volume of a particular crime, but also the relative seriousness of that crime in comparison to other crimes so that more serious crimes carry a greater weight than less serious crimes.

We can see from this that when compared to 1960’s numbers crime is high, however since the early 90’s there has been a decrease in both violent and property crime. So it seems that the crime rate is and has been for a decade or more consistently going down.

It has often been claimed by the ‘tough on crime’ type that crime is really going up but police forces and politicians manipulate the numbers so as to ensure a ‘perception’ of decreasing crime. There are several logical errors with this thinking.

One, it is in the interests of both law enforcement and ‘tough on crime’ politicians to have stats that show increases in crime so as to justify increases in funding or re-elections.

Another problem is the numbers for ‘All crime’ are also declining; regardless of the breakdown of the sub-categories, the raw number still shows a decrease.

So, if crime rates are going down why are there cries for increased prison capacity. Well, one explanation is the lack of investment in infrastructure; that is old prisons may be decommissioned or in states of disrepair so that they cannot hold the same number of prisoners as before.However, most of the complaints of Canada’s Prison Ombudsman is not investment in bricks and mortar but in support services; most notably in mental health and addiction programs. Other concerns and I did not think of this, is inadequate training of staff leading to increased incidents of ‘inappropriate violence’ to subdue prisoners.

In 2010, the number of prisoners according to Stats Can was 71,417 but at any one moment there are about 20,000 convicts. This discrepancy is accounted for by the fact that as one person is released another in incarcerated…so there are 71,000 people flowing through the system with about 20,000 incarcerated at any one moment. The incarceration rate is actually down by over 10% since the highpoint of the mid-90s.

However, the actual prison population is 38,348 in prison. The additional population arises not from convicts but those people who are remanded into custody, usually while they await sentencing. This number has increased by over 30% over the same amount of time.

Shifting focus of prisons

The estimated capacity of our prison system is about 38,284. Factoring in that increase in remand rates and the distribution of cells compared to location of crime, we can see a case for minor increasing to the number of prisons.

But we still haven’t answered our question; where are all these criminals coming from?

Well, one factor is although the crime rate may be lowering, the actual number of crimes can still increase due to population growth. Canada’s population has almost doubled since the 60’s. So in absolute terms, the number of crimes has actually increased. In 2010 the number of crimes was 2,095,921 compared to 2,023,558 in 1991 out peak from crime.

A complex trend in length of incarceration

Another factor is the length of sentencing. As mentioned already, there is flow of people going into  and getting out of prison. As sentence length increases, the number of those remaining in prison increased and thus inflate the numbers of the incarcerated even if the actual number of crimes decrease. In 1984 the median prison stay was 28 days compared to 36 days in 2009 and increase of almost 30%.

length of stay for most down but some notably up.

Another factor is the growing number of narco-prisoners. Those that fall outside the regular violent or property crime but what I would classify, in an admittedly biased way, moral crimes. The number of people convicted of drug crimes has increased almost doubled since, doubled with an rate of increase of 37%.

Most crime rates are down, 'moral' crime are up.

Now some will say that the reason for the decrease in crime rates is due to the ‘tough on crime’ stance. To check to see if this is correlation or causation, we could check prison population to crime rates; one would expect a link.

I chose the US as my lab; the two highest states of incarceration are Louisiana and Alabama . The three two lowest: Utah and North Dakota. Listed by crime rates we do get a correlation – the highest crime rate is Louisiana followed by Alabama, the lowest is North Dakota followed by Utah. Now, in one sense we could say that with higher crime rates you would expect more convicts however, this goes against the ‘tough on crime’ people who claim that the more ‘criminals’ in prison, the safer the streets will be.

If we expand this, of the western nations, the US has the highest incarceration rates and the highest crime rates…again, putting more people in prison for longer periods of time does not seem to correlate with lowering crime rates.

In contrast to increasing incarceration, if we look at Europe where less emphasis is placed upon locking people up and more into rehabilitation, we get both a lower crime rate (in places half that of Canada) as well as a declining prison population. The Netherlands last year began shutting down a number of prisons due to over capacity. The money saved on prisons, in their construction, upkeep, staffing and supporting the inmates can be applied to preventative and rehabilitative measures.

The cost of a prisoner is anywhere from $150,000 to over $250,000 per day compared to community options (like community supervision) of $50 per day. Money will spend?


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