Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More jail cells won't solve overcrowding

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A recent Free Press commentary by Michelle Gawronsky, president of the the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, called on the province to continue building more jails as a response to jail overcrowding. Unfortunately, all evidence shows it is simply beyond the capacity of the province to build its way out of this problem.

It's time to take unworkable solutions to jail overcrowding off the table in order to focus discussion on what can be done in order to bring down the population of Manitoba's correctional system to manageable and safe levels.

According to Gawronsky, Manitoba jails were built to accommodate 2,000 inmates, and currently house about 2,600 on any given day. Gawronsky predicts jail populations could double over the next 10 years to 5,000, which would mean 3,000 inmates more than the correctional centres were designed to hold.

This prediction might actually be on the low side, as it does not take into account new minimum-sentencing laws and restrictions on community sentences that are just now taking effect.

Since 1999, the province has built approximately 800 new jail cells, an average of 60 cells per year. Even if we could afford to keep building new jails at the current rate, this would only amount to about 600 new jail beds over the next decade, a fraction of the 3,000 (4,000 or 5,000) new cells that will be needed by then. Obviously, we can't rely on a solution that at best would only address 20 per cent of the problem.

The current jail building boom has come with considerable cost. By way of comparison, during the same period of time, Manitoba has only constructed 400 new personal-care-home beds, an average of 30 per year. As well, recent figures from the Manitoba Civil Service Commission show over the last four years -- out of 18 departments -- Manitoba Justice received 46 per cent of all new civil-service positions (and 58 per cent of the new positions created in 2011-12). Yet despite all the extra spending, overcrowding in Manitoba jails is worse than ever.

If a problem can't be fixed by throwing money at it, then it is time to look at a different approach. Last year, the province's adult capacity review committee made a number of recommendations for responding to the overcrowding crisis, which have only just been made public.

Instead of calling on the province to keep building more jail cells, the committee found the province needs to take concrete steps to reduce the number of people going into jail. To use the analogy of an overflowing sink, what's needed is not a bigger sink, but ways to reduce the amount of water the sink has to hold.

One solution that needs to be explored further is non-compliance with conditions of bail or probation. A great number of those currently behind bars are there because they missed an appointment, drank or used drugs when they weren't supposed to, or talked to someone they weren't supposed to contact. Failing to comply with a condition needs to be taken seriously, but does it require the individual to be returned to custody?

Alternatives that allow the individual to remain in the community also provide greater access to supports and programs he or she needs to break their cycle of offending. Therefore, not only is finding alternatives to custody much cheaper, it can be much more effective.

It is also time to revisit the use of temporary absences -- early release from jail for those seen to have earned it. Temporary absences were widely used in the 1970s and 1980s, to encourage successful reintegration to the community. The practice fell out of favour in the 1990s following a couple of high-profile cases. A full return to this practice would be a very effective response to chronic jail overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections costs.

The capacity review committee has pointed the way toward a new approach to responding to overcrowding -- one based on prevention, diversion and less reliance on incarceration. Taxpayers should be grateful -- because in this case, what works best is also what we can best afford.

John Hutton is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2013 A11

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