Canada must commit to better rehabilitation for federal offenders

Read this op-ed on the Globe and Mail.

The devastating events in Saskatchewan a few weeks ago, with 11 dead and 18 others injured, have rocked this country. As Canadians collectively mourn the loss of life, they are also asking crucial questions about what could have been done to prevent this tragedy.

The answers, while complex, fundamentally boil down to systemic change.

Unbeknownst to many Canadians, there are thousands of federal offenders on parole at any given time in Canada. Most wouldn’t know who they are, or even the locations of the community-parole offices or halfway houses where federal offenders are being supervised in towns and cities across this country.

More often than not, offenders are able to safely reintegrate back into their hometowns or adopted communities without recommitting a major crime. The rehabilitation efforts made within and outside the walls of federal penitentiaries have helped them to forge a different path

But unfortunately, some stumble, and if they’re not forced to return behind bars, they may end up moving between marginalized housing options and poorly funded group programs, while relying on poorly equipped families who cannot solely prevent their re-engagement with gangs, addictions, or crime.

To be clear, it is federal-government agencies that are ultimately responsible for the incarceration and successful reintegration of federal offenders. Correctional Service Canada (CSC) is mandated with managing the rehabilitation of federal offenders, and the potential risk they may pose to public safety. Conditional release is an important step in preparing offenders for life outside of prison and allows for a period of supervision that hopefully points them in the right direction.

Further, it is the Parole Board of Canada, particularly its appointed members, who ultimately decide the fate of offenders with respect to early release. The Board also determines the potential conditions placed on offenders who are released back into communities on parole.

In 2014, CSC experienced deep cuts in funding, which affected staffing levels and the programs available in federal penitentiaries and in communities. In some cases, these cuts compromised CSC’s ability to fully stabilize offenders leaving prison, who are often in urgent need of housing, food, clothing, cultural support and access to employment.

Community partners, largely funded by other levels of government or non-profits, have increasingly been forced to absorb federal offenders into support programs for addictions, mental health and Indigenous healing that are often already over-subscribed. Yet, there has been no commensurate funding from the federal government for the very beds and spaces on which these programs so heavily rely for positive reintegration outcomes.

At its core, in order to manage risks to public safety and ensure federal offenders have the best opportunity for reform, we must ensure there is a sufficient number of community-based federal corrections staff members on the ground. These corrections workers also must be given the time and resources to assess the complex needs of each offender upon release. Moreover, adequate resources also must be in place to facilitate federal offenders’ access to timely programs and services that actively support their safe reintegration cut: into communities across the country. If the CSC does not have the right infrastructure in place, it puts communities at potential risk as offenders may be more likely to repeat the actions that brought them into the criminal justice system in the first place.

Finally, there will be instances where offenders stumble and need to be returned to prison. To minimize the chances of an offender becoming “Unlawfully at Large,” as Myles Sanderson did in Saskatchewan, the federal government must immediately re-establish the Community Correctional Liaison Officer program.

This program, cut in 2014 by the CSC, deployed seasoned police officers to work directly with community-parole offices in order to gather intelligence about offenders who were going off-course. In the event that a federal offender had to immediately return to prison, these liaison police officers, who had the authority and training to quickly execute a warrant, were able to swiftly put the person back behind bars.

While it may be tempting to think of the Saskatchewan stabbings as a “one-off” incident or somehow unique to Indigenous communities, this would be a false assumption. The shortcomings of the federal corrections system that Canadians have largely taken for granted must be fixed, and quickly – otherwise we risk the prospect of another tragedy.