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Who is Really in our Canadian Jails?

Man in Handcuffs

Pegah Memarpour, freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, debunks the myth that Canadian prisons are filled with rapists, murderers and serial killers, and suggests society’s perception of prison population could do more harm than good.

Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams, Mohammad and Hamed Shafia.  These are the names of some of the most commonly known and reviled criminals in Canadian history.

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Their stories have been paraded across news headlines and media outlets, and imprinted in the minds and nightmares of many Canadians. Unfortunately, these accounts are not uncharacteristic to Canadian television or media. If you were to search across prime time television, you would be bombarded with news stories of violent crimes across Canada, and even more fictional tales of heinous, violent or sexual criminal cases (CSI, Criminal Minds, Law and Order – to name a few).

The over publicized and glamorized crime stories – although entertaining – paints a particular picture of crime in Canada. This picture, and resulting myth, is that violent crime is very prevalent in Canada and our prisons are filled with rapists, murders, and serial killers, all locked away for life.

Unfortunately, this is just that – a myth – one that can be easily debunked by current Canadian crime statistics.

Snapshot of Canadian Institutions

In contrast to popular belief, many of the crimes reported to police do not actually result in prison time.  In 2011, approximately 2.8 million crimes were reported to police, however only 5,115 persons were sentenced to federal facilities between 2011 and 2012.  Many of these individuals were innocent, had charges dropped, or sentenced to the community (e.g., parole, house arrest, community service).

During the same year there were 14,419 federally incarcerated prisoners under the Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) jurisdiction. CSC is the governing body for all federal institutions.  These institutions house offenders that are sentenced to anything two years or more (including indeterminate sentences). Any person sentenced under two years – two years less a day – would be sent to a provincial institution. The CSC operates 52 federal prisons, 11 of which are located in Ontario and, in 2010, were home to approximately 3834 prisoners.  This population is increasing steadily with tough on crime initiatives and mandatory minimum sentences (e.g., Bill C-10). As such, our institutions will see more prisoners, for longer periods of time. 

“The over publicized and glamorzed crime stories – although entertaining – paints a particular picture of crime in Canada.

So how many of these prisoners are murderers, dangerous offenders, and serious sexual offenders?

In 2011, out of the 14,419 persons incarcerated 2,768 were serving sentences for first and second degree murder, 447 were classified as dangerous offenders, and 30 as dangerous sexual offenders.  This makes up only 23% of those incarcerated within federal institutions.  Which warrants the question, who is actually in our federal facilities?   

Unlike the common myths portrayed to us through many outlets, these federal inmates are not all high risk offenders, convicted of heinous crimes. Approximately 62% of those incarcerated are within medium security institutions, where only 15% are found in maximum security institutions. Signifying that the majority of prisoners are not identified as being high risk to the guards, themselves, other prisoners, or the community.

Interestingly, it is property crimes that make up the majority of criminal code violations (approximately 61%) identified by Statistics Canada in 2011. Property crimes include break and enter, motor vehicle thefts, other thefts, fraud, mischief, arson, and possession of stolen property. Therefore, deflating the haunting notion of the criminals found within todays Canadian prison institutions.

These prisoners, as recent criminology and sociology researchers have brought to the light, are identified as being from the lowest social tiers of society. Today’s prisoners are increasingly identified as living in poverty, suffering from mental illness (commonly untreated), addictions, and poor health. To this end, punitive, harsh and lengthy sanctions would not decrease or positively impact crime and reoffending. In fact, not focusing on rehabilitation and preventative approaches to crime will result in the exact opposite – an increase in the number of prisoners within federal institutions. Considering it costs approximately $110,000 Canadian annually to house a male prisoner in a federal facility, this does not seem like an alluring solution for anyone.

“Harsher crime initiatives, longer sentences, and stigmatized views of those who have previously been to prison can set up more barriers and road blocks for those who are released from prison and attempting to make positive life changes.”

Although these few statistics bring to light some of the realities of crime and criminality in Canada, one can still wonder why these myths exist in the first place. Having a misrepresented view of crime and criminals, brought on by media and pop culture, can significantly harm those already in these low social tiers of society. Harsher crime initiatives, longer sentences, and stigmatized views of those who have previously been to prison can set up more barriers and road blocks for those who are released from prison and attempting to make positive life changes.

Though it is obvious you can’t make television series off of property crimes, it is important to understand that these glamorized views are not the norm within today’s society – and can do more harm than good.

Pegah Memarpour is a freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, the nationwide processing firm for Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) & U.S. Entry Waiver applications.   The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pardon Applications of Canada.  For a list of statistical references used in this article, or more information on Pardon Applications of Canada, call 866-383-9744 or email info@pardonapplications.ca.