USGE President Stan Stapleton: The hope of parole serves a purpose

As published today in the Ottawa Citizen…

Public safety is clearly on the minds of Canadians. And for good reason, given recent domestic and international events. So, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the federal government would introduce the possibility of keeping some of Canada’s most egregious offenders in jail – for good. As someone who has worked extensively in several federal correctional facilities, I can appreciate the sentiment.

Offenders who have been convicted of disturbing crimes leave little room for sympathy – no matter how difficult their life circumstances. As a long time program officer in a maximum security institution, I actively worked with offenders – known as “lifers” – who were serving 25-year sentences, sometimes less. And while their crimes may have been heinous, these individuals are fully aware that, because of their actions, not only did they rob their victims of a future, but they also robbed themselves of one.

Despite the severity of the crimes, Canada has been a leader in terms of keeping recidivism rates among this cohort very low. By the time most lifers are eligible for parole, they are often in their 50s or 60s. In my experience, those who are deemed fit for life on the outside are most concerned about adapting to a world that has rapidly evolved without them, not with recommitting a crime. They are genuinely motivated by the prospect of a few years outside of the “pen”, where preparing a meal, taking a walk, and connecting with what family remains, are possible.

Take that hope away and the risks of suicide and violence against staff and other prisoners begins to rise. Without the hope of parole, they quite literally have nothing to lose. And the prospect of incarcerating older, more frail offenders who pose minimal risk – after decades in prison – has the potential to divert resources from those who actually benefit from rehabilitation.

Of course, offenders who do not demonstrate the capacity or willingness to rehabilitate never escape the tight grasp of Canada’s Parole Board which can deny parole or set very strict conditions for an offender’s release. Violate those conditions and offenders can find themselves back behind bars very quickly.

Few Canadians know that there are approximately 8,800 offenders under supervision by Correctional Service Canada in communities across Canada. An additional approximately 13,000 individuals are currently incarcerated. The overwhelming majority of these offenders will be released back into the community, even if the legislation changes.

Without the work of those employed by Correctional Service Canada (CSC), including thousands of parole officers, program officers, institutional teachers and other correctional staff who work to facilitate an offender’s transition to life on the outside, Canadians would be much less safe. Unfortunately, CSC was hit hard by the federal Deficit Reduction Action Plan adopted two years ago and many employees report that they are having to do their jobs in a much leaner environment, despite the high stakes. Costs are being curtailed at almost every level. This includes increasing the number of offenders that parole officers must supervise in institutions and in community correctional facilities.

Whatever the fate of the proposed legislation, it won’t – in my view – result in safer streets. That job is left to those who work day in and day out with offenders. Investing in the agencies which are at the front lines of that work is crucial. It’s time for Canadians to better understand the nature of this work and its tremendous value in keeping Canadians safe.

Stan Stapleton, formerly a correctional officer and program officer for over 30 years, currently serves as the president of the Union of Solicitor General Employees (USGE) which represents 7,000 federal Correctional Service of Canada employees.