Lecturing is Howard Sapers (pictured), Canada’s Correctional Investigator. With a background in criminology and social justice, he’s like an ombudsman who investigates complaints of mistreatment by inmates.
When I saw the title of his talk (Some Reflections on the Discourse of Crime and Punishment in Canada), three words leapt out at me: “Crime and Punishment”.
That’s the title of a Dostoevsky novel, of course. It was published in 1866, and concerns an impoverished St. Petersburg student who hatches a plot to murder a conniving pawn broker. He justifies his actions by arguing that he can then use her money to perform good deeds. But after killing the woman and her half-sister he begins to worry obsessively about being caught and punished.
Our society bears little resemblance to mid-19th century Czarist Russia. Yet in recent years the Harper government, in a calculated move to shore up support in its bedrock constituency, has adopted a tough on crime agenda that seeks to limit the discretion of judges in sentencing, impose tougher parole conditions, and invest heavily in new and expanded prisons to house what will inevitably be a growing inmate population.
Worldwide, incarceration rates vary greatly. At 760 inmates per 100,000 population, the United States is pretty much the world leader (although China might have it beat, but figures for that country are hard to come by). Modern-day Russia also has a high incarceration rate (626 per 100,000). At the opposite end of the spectrum are Denmark and Japan, where the rate is 63 per 100,000.
In Canada, our incarceration rate is 116 per 100,000 — which puts us 117 in world rankings from worst to best. Although as Harper’s policies begin to take effect our ranking will surely rise. Hardest hit, naturally, will be Aboriginal people and other visible minorities, the poor, and increasingly, the mentally ill, for whom prison has become a default care system in lieu of proper medical and societal supports to live independently.
Saper’s talk tonight is in Rm. 110 of the University of Regina’s Classroom Building and starts at 7:30 p.m.