The web address of this editorial in the the Toronto Star this morning is a little misleading. I was as astounded as the editorialist to read of the conversion of Newt Gingrich to the side of those of us who are against the expansion of prisons. It would seem that the Harperites are operating about ten years behind American conservatives. The prisons are full of petty thieves and the drug addicted(many of whom are the same people) and serve as finishing schools for criminals. Amongst the things they do not do are: halt recidivism, especially with dollars going to buildings, not programs; address a soaring crime rate–the evening news notwithstanding, it is lower–; treat the mentally ill within the walls; or decrease the use of illegal drugs. As far as I understand it, the prisons are incapable of keeping drugs out of the buildings themselves.
The amount of money spent is staggering. According to the Star editorial, 68 billion dollars/year in the USA. 68 billion! A fraction of that amount would go a long way towards mental health programs, literacy programs, drug rehabilitation, housing the homeless. According to the Star, the amount of new money here over 5 years will be 5 billion. That’s new money, for new beds, not for refurbishing the old prisons that are a crumbling disgrace.
The list of the root causes of crime goes on and on, but tossing people into a revolving door system that turns out ever more hardened criminals is not, to my mind, the answer. I think that Corrections(and isn’t that a misnomer) needs to look at the hospital system, which has turned from a totally inpatient to a largely outpatient system, trying to care for people in their homes, as opposed to beds in an institution as it was when I started(40 years ago). They could begin by eliminating prison time for petty crime and soft drug offenses, turning to community-based initiatives, saving prison for those so dangerous that there is nothing to do except lock them up.