Ottawa: Correctional Service Canada (CSC) employees who work in Canada’s penitentiaries every day with offenders were not surprised by many of the findings in this week’s report from the Auditor general. Major changes to federal legislation over the last decade, combined with significant budget cuts to CSC, have led to more offenders being incarcerated longer. Not to mention fewer resources to support their transition to community release.
“In the face of a dramatically shifting legislative environment, Correctional Canada Service had to absorb significant budget cuts which has meant it’s a very lean environment now. Inevitably, there are gaps,” said Stan Stapleton, National President of the Union of Solicitor General Employees.
Notably, under pressure to streamline and cut costs, CSC increased the number of offenders that are assigned to a parole officer’s caseload in an institution. Consequently, parole officers have no choice but to spend less time with offenders.
“The time just isn’t there anymore. Parole officers in penitentiaries have anywhere between twenty five to thirty cases to manage, many of them complex, with even fewer resources than before. It’s incredibly time consuming and demanding work,” adds Stapleton.
In the Auditor General’s report, Mr. Ferguson expressed concern that many offenders may not be released in a timely fashion, leaving the impression that parole officers may be at fault. In fact, federal changes to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act abolished an option once available to first time non-violent federal offenders, entitled Accelerated Parole Review. For decades, first time federal offenders serving a sentence for a non-violence offence were eligible for release at one sixth of their sentence. Now, this largely low risk group must wait until one third of their sentence is complete before they can pursue this option.
Offenders are also up against another reality. If denied parole, the waiting period to return to the parole board has been increased from six to twelve months. Additionally, because of significant budgetary pressures, CSC has cut case management assistants and information gathering technician positions who gather crucial information from criminal justice partners which helps determine an offender’s suitability for parole.
“There’s a lot more at play now with all of the new legislation.” says David Neufeld, National Vice President of USGE and a former parole officer. “If an offender hasn’t completed a program because they are on a wait list, or they can’t get in front of the parole board because they there are fewer in person hearings, or we can’t complete the risk assessment in time due to a lack of information, they will not have been afforded the chance for gradual, structured and supervised release in the community.”
The RCMP has also changed how it interacts with CSC. Under their own pressures, they have stopped providing a complete and updated record of the offender’s criminal history, leaving it up to parole officers and other CSC officials to try and piece together the information from a variety of sources. Increasingly, parole officers do not have a full picture of the offender’s history while conducting risk assessments.
“It’s simply not sustainable,” says USGE President Stan Stapleton.
The Parole Board of Canada has changed the way it does business too. Legislative reforms have resulted in an increase in paper decisions and less offenders having the opportunity to present their case in person in front of the Parole Board of Canada.
Finally, the resources available to offenders who are released into the community – as required by law – are diminishing. This includes things as basic as accommodation, food, and access to employment councilors, substance abuse councilors – all designed to stabilize offender behavior and improve their chances of success in the community.
This past winter, Correctional Service Canada announced that it would no longer provide subsidies for a residency transition program that covered the costs of short term residence for just released offenders to get on their feet. This included short term voluntary stays at a half-way house. In this situation, parole officers are forced to direct offenders to local shelters for accommodation where drugs and alcohol are easily available.
” It’s not good,” adds Neufeld. “We’ve got guys coming out after ten years with literally no place to go. They have lived in a highly structured environment for years. They haven’t been on a work release so there’s no employment history. They are not in touch with their families. CSC isn’t obligated to support them anymore.”
“For all we are spending on prisons, how is it that we can’t ensure that an offender, who taxpayers have just spent over a million dollars to incarcerate, actually makes it on their feet once they’re out. “