Main menu:

History of RPE Thought

Posts by Tag

RSS New from the CCPA

  • CCPA welcomes Randy Robinson as new Ontario Director March 27, 2019
    The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is pleased to announce the appointment of Randy Robinson as the new Director of our Ontario Office.  Randy’s areas of expertise include public sector finance, the gendered rise of precarious work, neoliberalism, and labour rights. He has extensive experience in communications and research, and has been engaged in Ontario’s […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • 2019 Federal Budget Analysis February 27, 2019
    Watch this space for response and analysis of the federal budget from CCPA staff and our Alternative Federal Budget partners. More information will be added as it is available. Commentary and Analysis  Aim high, spend low: Federal budget 2019 by David MacDonald (CCPA) Budget 2019 fiddles while climate crisis looms by Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood (CCPA) Budget hints at priorities for upcoming […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Boots Riley in Winnipeg May 11 February 22, 2019
    Founder of the political Hip-Hop group The Coup, Boots Riley is a musician, rapper, writer and activist, whose feature film directorial and screenwriting debut — 2018’s celebrated Sorry to Bother You — received the award for Best First Feature at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards (amongst several other accolades and recognitions). "[A] reflection of the […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • CCPA-BC welcomes Emira Mears as new Associate Director February 11, 2019
    This week the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office is pleased to welcome Emira Mears to our staff team as our newly appointed Associate Director. Emira is an accomplished communications professional, digital strategist and entrepreneur. Through her former company Raised Eyebrow, she has had the opportunity to work with many organizations in the […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Study explores media coverage of pipeline controversies December 14, 2018
    Supporters of fossil fuel infrastructure projects position themselves as friends of working people, framing climate action as antithetical to the more immediately pressing need to protect oil and gas workers’ livelihoods. And as the latest report from the CCPA-BC and Corporate Mapping Project confirms, this framing has become dominant across the media landscape. Focusing on pipeline […]
    Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Progressive Bloggers


Recent Blog Posts

Posts by Author

Recent Blog Comments

The Progressive Economics Forum

Harper’s Justice Agenda: Theory vs. the Evidence

What follows is a guest post by Craig Jones, former Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

Champions of harsher justice measures in the Harper government would have us believe that longer sentences are a win-win-win: for victims, for safe streets and for future victims. To that end, the government enacted a number of mandatory minimum sentences – which almost always involves incarceration – in the belief that Canada’s judiciary are too lenient. In some cases, these crimes would not have warranted incarceration but for the requirement imposed by a mandatory minimum sentence – in other cases, the length of the sentence is longer than it would otherwise be due to the mandatory sentence. It has been thought impolite to ask, “what is the impact on those who experience harsher measures?” or “at what cost?”

 The operative theory holds that offenders learn from the experience of others (general deterrence) or from their own direct experience (specific deterrence). In particular, after they have served a sentence, offenders will not re-offend because their experience has taught them that harsh sentences are a consequence of repeat offending. Coincidentally, the theory that harsher sentences lead to lower rates of re-offending has been tested in the closest thing social scientists have to a natural randomized controlled trial. Across the United States, mandatory minimum sentences – many for drug-related crimes – have attracted popular support for their “get tough” ethic. There has also been wide variability in the harshness of imposed sentences, even in cases that were substantially similar, across contiguous jurisdictions where mandatory sentences are not as prevalent. This variability in sentencing decisions across jurisdictions permits outcome tracking of these sentences to enable – with some confidence – robust conclusions about how well these sentences actually accomplish what their champions claim for them.

 The results show either no effect or higher rates of re-offending in jurisdictions with mandatory sentencing compared to non-prison options. Put another way: focusing on the high quality research into deterrence-based sentencing – most of it conducted in an environment as close to random assignment as social scientists ever enjoy – leads to the conclusion that there is either no deterrent effect or, ironically, that deterrence-based sentencing leads, in practice, to higher rates of re-offending when compared with non-prison alternatives.

 What about settings with more homogeneous criminal populations? Here too, no evidence can be found to support deterrence-based sentencing and what evidence exists points in the opposite direction: incarceration makes people more likely to re-offend rather than less. Interestingly, this same conclusion emerges across different methodologies and in different countries. Worse, drug offenders sent to prison seem to be more likely to reoffend than those sentenced to probation – and this seems to be true irrespective of the sex. So the policy choice to employ mandatory minimum sentences turns out to be a policy choice not only to increase the rate of incarceration, but to create a cohort of people who will continue to re-offend irrespective of the length of their previous sentence. Worse, it appears from the evidence that those sent to prison for the first time are more likely to re-offend than similar offenders sentenced to a community-based option. The experience of imprisonment – so it appears – is criminogenic, a finding which substantially confirms what criminologists and sociologists of crime have been arguing for decades: prisons “do succeed in punishing,” concluded Richard Nixon’s 1973 National Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, “but they do not deter. They change the committed offender, but the change is likely to be more negative than positive.” A similar finding emerged in the United Kingdom at about the same time: “the inmate who has served a longer amount of time … has had his tendencies toward criminality strengthened and is therefore more likely to recidivate than the inmate who has served a lesser amount of time.”[1] Worse, harsher prison conditions seem to produce more violent prisoners.[2]

 The annual average cost per inmate (in current dollars) has climbed steadily since 2006-7 from $93,030 to $114.364 in 2010-11. Over the last decade, the number of women admitted to federal jurisdiction increased 69.6% from 204 in 2002-03 to 346 in 2011-12, with costs per year per offender rising from $166,830 to $214,614 by 2010-11.[3] It would appear to be true, as a British Home Secretary realized, that “prison is an expensive way to make bad people worse.”

 A priority for the next non-Conservative government must include unwinding the regressive, expensive and counter-productive “justice agenda” enacted during the Harper regime – preferably in one massive omnibus bill that limits deliberation by parliamentarians. Going further, the next Prime Minister should re-constitute a law reform commission and begin the task of bringing coherence, human rights and logic back to Canada’s justice and correctional systems. Canadians can do better than spending money on measures that have already failed in the United States.

 The irrationality, cost and ineffectiveness of the Harper justice agenda is the theme of my forthcoming chapter in the next edition of How Ottawa Spends from McGill-Queen’s University Press.


[1]D. R. Jaman, R. M. Dickover & L.A. Bennett, “Parole outcome as a function of time served,” British Journal of Criminology, 12 (1972), p.7.

[2] M.K. Chen & J.M. Shapiro, “Does Prison Harden Inmates?” p. 19, online at

[3]2012 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview, online at

Enjoy and share:


Comment from fjf
Time: March 18, 2014, 11:00 am

Looking at the cost of incarceration ($114.364 in 2010-11) there appears to be the basis for a strong argument in favour of a guaranteed income. This would stabilize families, provide economic means to separate from an abusive environment, enable access to education and potentially avert a resort to criminal behaviour.

With regard to violent offenders there may be rehabilitative value in the system of prison farms which were terminated by the Harper government.

Write a comment

Related articles