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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

EDWARD GREENSPAN and ANTHONY DOOB

Putting politics before public safety Add to ...

This is the second in a three-part series on proposed reforms to our justice system. Next Monday: conditional sentences.

At any given time, there are more than 1,700 Canadian citizens incarcerated around the world. To contribute to the administration of justice, the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into the community, Canada has entered into international transfer agreements with more than 80 countries. Without the benefit of transfers, offenders are deported at the end of their sentence to their country of citizenship, often after having spent years in confinement and being totally unprepared for a safe, secure and successful reintegration into society.

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This summary came from a recent government report on the International Transfer of Offenders Act. An earlier report noted that the act’s purpose is humanitarian. A major international conference in 2003 celebrated the success of this humanitarian endeavour.

Canadians led the world by initiating a process of transferring foreign prisoners to their home countries with a proposal at a 1975 United Nations conference. In 1978, Canada negotiated the first transfer treaty (with the U.S.). Canada led; others followed. These treaties focus on the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders. Why? Because good corrections and humanitarian policies are compatible.

Between 1978 and 2009, 1,504 Canadians were transferred back to Canada to serve their prison sentences closer to their families and to be reintegrated, gradually and with support and controls, into Canadian society. The government’s own reports conclude that the act’s purpose and principles have been successful and that the law, as it stands, contributes to public safety. In one study of 744 transferred offenders, only 4 per cent committed an offence after their release from prison.

We found no records of offenders being refused re-entry by Canada until 2006, when the Harper government started rejecting transfers of significant numbers of offenders. By blocking transfers, the government is putting “looking tough” ahead of public safety, acting as if it can keep these offenders out of Canada forever. The government is pretending that “protection of society” and being “humanitarian” are incompatible. In fact, allowing Canadian offenders to return to Canada and receive treatment under correctional control is both humanitarian and crime reducing.

The current law says its purpose is “to contribute to the administration of justice and the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into the community by enabling offenders to serve their sentences in the country of which they are citizens.” The government wants to change the wording so the law’s main purpose would be “to enhance public safety,” ignoring the fact that the best way to enhance public safety is to do what is currently the law.

Why change a law that’s working so well? The Harper plan is to keep Canadians who have offended abroad from serving their sentences in Canada in order to appear “tough on crime.” By legislating public safety as the act’s purpose, it hopes to justify the de facto end to transfers.

This won’t enhance public safety. The alternative – being deported to Canada at the end of the foreign sentence – will mean offenders won’t have had the benefit of rehabilitative programs; they probably will have lost contact with family and friends who could assist in their reintegration, and Canada will have no special controls over them.

When the government last tried to change this law, the minister said he was “taking action to protect Canadians.” But he’s doing the opposite. His approach ignores the reality that, eventually, these offenders will return because they’re Canadian.

If this were the only bill the government is proposing to reintroduce in which public safety is being compromised without justification, it would be unfortunate but not so serious since this bill only involves limited numbers of offenders.

Unfortunately, it’s an example of a much more serious problem. The government is wrapping its crime legislation in the cloak of public safety. As in other areas of criminal justice policy, the Harper government appears to be a bunch of amateurs with blunt instruments.

These proposals are not sensible responses either to the fear or the reality of crime. This act is one of the clearest examples of using “crime policy” solely for political purposes. The government calls its proposal the “Keeping Canadians Safe (International Transfer of Offenders) Act.” It should call it the “Making Canadians Unsafe While Appearing Tough Act.”

Edward Greenspan is a Toronto criminal lawyer. Anthony Doob is a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

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