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Coalition of churches condemns Ottawa's justice plan Add to ...

Congregations of Christian churches across Canada are being asked to tell the federal Conservative government they don't want to pay for its justice agenda.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections, a 39-year-old coalition for justice reform that represents 11 of the largest Christian denominations, has written a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemning legislation that is expected to increase the number of convicts dramatically and require billions of dollars worth of prison construction.

Now the group is trying to convince its congregations that laws to end conditional sentencing, impose mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent offences, and prevent early parole will actually make streets more dangerous while draining tax dollars.

The council has created a graphic titled Prison Facts: The Co$ts to demonstrate the savings it says could be achieved by keeping non-violent offenders out of jail. The graphic is being distributed through church e-mail networks with an accompanying message that urges people to express their opinions about the issue.

"We are trying to educate the public and the people in our churches about this," said Lorraine Berzins, co-ordinator of analysis for the CCJC, who worked in Canada's federal penitentiaries for 14 years. "It goes so much against all the evidence about what keeps communities safe, and it does so much harm, and they are going to spend so much money, that it's really surprising that there isn't more opposition."

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is a member of the council along with other 10 other faith groups including the Anglican and United churches, has joined the CCJC in opposing Mr. Harper's crime bills, Ms. Berzins said.

In October, Bishop Gary Gordon of the Diocese of Whitehorse voiced his concerns to the Prime Minister. Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada has written to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to protest against the planned prison expansion.

And, in December, Laurent Champagne, the president of the CCJC, wrote to Mr. Harper to say the strategy of locking up more people for longer periods has been repeatedly proven neither to reduce crime nor to assist victims.

"Your policy is applying a costly prison response to people involved in the courts who are non-violent offenders, or to repeat offenders who are mentally ill and/or addicted, the majority of whom are not classified as high risk," Mr. Champagne wrote.

"These offenders are disproportionately poor, ill-equipped to learn, from the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups," he wrote. "They require treatment, health services, educational, employment and housing interventions, all less expensive and more humane than incarceration."

Public safety is enhanced through healthy communities that support individuals and families, Mr. Champagne wrote. "We, therefore, respectfully ask you to modify your government's policy, taking into consideration the impact it will have on the most disadvantaged, its lack of effectiveness, and its serious budgetary implications."

But it will take much to sway Mr. Harper, who said in a speech this month to mark the fifth anniversary of his government: "Canadians want to be able to feel safe in their homes and communities, and that means that the bad guys need to be taken out of circulation. Does that cost money? Yes. Is it worth it? Just ask a victim."

When asked about the letter from the CCJC to the Prime Minister, a spokesman for Mr. Toews said part of keeping communities safe is keeping dangerous criminals behind bars.

"Under the previous system, criminals - including convicted terrorists - were sometimes released the day after their sentencing. This is unacceptable to Canadians," said Christopher McCluskey, who added that the government has extended financial support to victims.

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