Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Aug. 25, 2008)

A long, lost rehab strategy


  By John Martin

There's never any shortage of commentary regarding what's wrong with the country's prison system. Some suggest the sentences themselves are often inappropriate while others question the conditions and amenities that all too often make incarceration quite comfortable.

Personally though, the wisest piece of advice I ever heard came from a long-time employee of the Corrections Service of Canada who had been heavily involved in staff training and development. Some 25 years ago he told anyone who would listen that corrections will never be effective until it embraces the concept of personal accountability and responsibility.

He wanted to reform the type of jobs inmates do while serving their sentence so they are involved in something productive and meaningful, even if it steps on the toes of the public sector unions. While this does happen in some cases, all too often inmates are assigned jobs that involve a lot of sitting around.

He also wanted offenders to be paid a real wage along the lines of what that particular job would pay in the community. But here's where it gets interesting. Under this model, inmates would have their room and board deducted. They would contribute to a victims' compensation fund each and every paycheque. They would also have to pay monthly support to any dependents on the outside. In other words, they'd work and see their pay go to supporting themselves and others--just the way it works in the real world.

These suggestions struck me then, as they do today, as completely reasonable and logical. So, it was quite gratifying to hear that the federal government is moving forward with something not unlike what I heard suggested a quarter century ago. Stockwell Day, the minister responsible for federal corrections, has made a number of announcements recently that seem to very much embrace this common sense and overdue approach. He's calling for inmates to be given real jobs, perform a full day's real work and forced to finance a victims' restitution fund.

Offenders are already supposed to pay into such a program when sentenced, but the country's judges seem to think this is unfair to criminals and typically waive the victim surcharge fine that they are obliged by law to impose.

Naturally this end run around the judiciary is being met with howls of outrage from the legal community--which is probably the best indication yet that it's the right thing to do. Similarly, there is immediate opposition to the notion of inmates having to work eight hours a day, five days a week. No doubt some will consider this cruel and unusual punishment.

Far too often, the experience of incarceration fails to address and challenge offenders to accept responsibility and take accountability for both their past and future behaviour. It tends to promote a sense of victimhood whereby government, society and the rest of us are at fault and inmates are paying the price for our collective failings.

Obviously, these and other reforms announced by the government are not unique or particularly original. But they're well overdue. Playing the "woe is me" card and denying responsibility works like a charm for Bart Simpson. But it's one hell of a poor way to run a justice system.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


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