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A new report from Toronto's John Howard Society traces the vicious cycle between prison incarceration and homelessness.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The path to prison often begins in homelessness, and the path back to freedom tends to leave former inmates homeless once again. It's a vicious cycle of failed reintegration that leads to recidivism, according to a new report from the John Howard Society of Toronto.

The report found that more than one in five inmates in the Toronto area were homeless when they were arrested. And there was little sign their prospects for integration were smoothed by their time in jail. One-third of inmates said they planned on living in a homeless shelter when they were released, and a further 12 per cent said they had no idea where they would go.

The report, Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless, based on interviews with 363 people in jail, highlights the difficulties many former prisoners face when they are returned to the community. It concludes that current incarceration policies are adding to the problem of homelessness in Toronto.

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"The number of homeless being released from prisons is growing and we have identified a pattern where they are returning to resource-poor neighbourhoods that are ill-equipped to provide employment opportunities, good housing or adequate support services," said Greg Rogers, executive director of the John Howard Society of Toronto, an organization that advocates on behalf of former prisoners.

"When we calculate the high financial and human costs of the current tough approach to crime we see that diverting spending from prisons to community services is a more effective way to ensure community safety and reduce recidivism."

Mr. Rogers' statement comes amid other criticism of the Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda. Their proposal for "truth in sentencing" has been projected by federal Budget Officer Kevin Page to cost an additional $5-billion a year, taking the cost of jailing Canada's prison population from $4.4-billion to $9.5-billion. All this at a time when crime rates are dropping, according to Statistics Canada.

Amber Kellen, co-author of the report, offered two key recommendations. The first is that prisoners should receive assistance in planning for life after release from the moment they arrive in the prison system. Currently, most prisoners are discharged at the remand stage with little advance notice, and without access to the programs offered to more serious offenders with longer terms in the federal prison system, Ms. Kellen said. The second is that there should be some form of assisted housing to lodge these former inmates while they piece their lives back together. Almost all will have lost jobs or apartments or social assistance while they were locked up.

"This isn't about soft on crime. This is about being smart on crime," Ms. Kellen said. "Often [former inmates]will end up back in custody before they even have a chance to make plans. Even individuals I've talked with that have the best of intentions.

"Without [a more comprehensive system]in place not only are people more likely to re-offend but it also is a community safety risk. Having people in various states of desperation creates a bunch of desperate people."

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