The following article was published in The Kelowna Daily Courier on Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Number of women locked up as federal offenders has doubled since mid-1990s

By Andy Blatchford, THE CANADIAN PRESS

The number of women locked up as federal offenders has doubled in the last 15 years and an advocacy group says the figure will continue climbing without corrective measures.

This comes as the Conservative government, without giving a specific price tag, concedes that implementing its tough-on-crime legislation will cost billions of dollars.

The director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies says these policy reforms will likely incarcerate more women, already Canada’s fastest-growing prison population.

“We’re likely to see disproportionately more women in prisons, particularly indigenous women and women with mental-health issues,” Kim Pate said.

In 1994-95, 151 women were handed federal sentences, compared with 313 in 2008-09, according to Correctional Service of Canada statistics. The sharpest increase has occurred in the last several years.

The number of women sentenced federally each year was a fraction of the overall admissions. Still, the incarcerations for females have been increasing each year while male incarcerations have decreased slightly since the early ’90s.

In 1994-95, 4,635 men were admitted as federal offenders, compared to 4,512 in 2008-09.

Prisoners are placed under federal jurisdiction when they receive sentences of two years or more. In April 2009, a total of 500 women were serving federal time.

Pate fears an increased focus on criminalization will take funding away from programs to help marginalized women, such as providing safe housing, jobs and access to health services.

She says more and more women, particularly cash-strapped single mothers, try to make ends meet through criminal activities, like prostituting themselves and transporting drugs across the border.

Pate says 82 per cent of all imprisoned women have histories of physical and/or sexual abuse.

“If there are fewer resources in the community, then prisons become a default for homelessness, for mental illness,” said Pate.

“Once you have someone with significant health issues in the prison system, it’s hard to get them out.”

Elizabeth Fry will host a two-day forum next week on Parliament Hill focused on finding solutions that will help keep women out of prison.

The Truth in Sentencing Act, which came into effect in February, tells judges to stop giving suspected criminals a two-for-one credit for the time they served in pre-trial detention.

Due to this, some inmates will spend more time behind bars, be it federal or provincial.

University of Toronto criminologist Rosemary Gartner says this type of legislation is popular with voters, but hasn’t been successful in cutting crime rates in other countries, including in the United States.

Gartner believes it could do just the opposite.

“The kinds of policies that (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper is talking about are unlikely to have any crime reduction or prevention effects,” Gartner said.

“All the research shows that incarcerating people who commit minor forms of crime is more likely to make them return to crime than dealing with them in other ways.”