The federal prison service is making it harder for inmates to get parole, triggering a spike in prisoner populations, a sharp increase in costs and a hike in the number of maximum-security ex-convicts released directly into communities.

In a report tabled Tuesday morning, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson revealed that the slowing pace of releases has contributed to a 6-per-cent increase in prison populations over the past four years – from 13,750 in 2010-11 to 14,550 in the past fiscal year – and a $91-million jump in custody costs.

As a whole, the audit adds substance to the position that opposition politicians and prisoner advocacy groups have taken for some time: that under the Harper Conservatives, prison populations have become bigger, pricier and potentially more dangerous, even as the country’s crime rate drops.

“Not only are you imperilling the community, but there is a greater cost as well,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society. “People are coming out in greater numbers at statutory release when they have not taken the programming that would make them more likely to succeed at being law-abiding citizens.”

Most federal offenders are entitled to consideration for early conditional release after completing one-third of their sentence in prison. The next phase of their sentence, parole, is designed to ease them into a life of virtue. Data from Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and the parole board indicate that offenders released on parole are far less likely to reoffend than those discharged directly into communities after their maximum prison time, or statutory release date, is up.

Yet the Auditor-General found that more inmates have to wait until their full sentence expires before re-entering society. In 2013-14, 54 per cent of offenders stayed in prison until their statutory release date. Of those, 64 per cent joined the community directly from medium-security prisons, with another 11 per cent coming from maximum-security institutions, a potentially turbulent transition with grave public safety risks, according to the Auditor-General.

“The way the federal system is supposed to work is you cascade down from maximum to medium to minimum before being released to the community,” Ms. Latimer said. “It’s in minimum that you get work release and other things that prepare for transition to community. To come directly from medium or maximum puts the community more at risk.”

One reason for the decline in early release is the low rate of offenders completing rehabilitation programming, which can consist of anything from literacy classes, to parenting tutorials, to substance-abuse interventions to job-hunting seminars. Completing the schooling plays a key role in obtaining parole, but in 2013-14, 65 per cent of inmates failed to complete their classes in time for early release eligibility.

The Auditor-General pinned that poor completion rate on CSC, accusing the agency of withholding programming referrals for low-risk inmates – the inmates most likely to obtain early release – and running an unfocused, haphazard programming regimen. For instance, just 5 per cent of the offenders taking employment classes actually needed to improve their employability prospects, according to the audit.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, meanwhile, put a positive spin on the audit’s finding. “I am pleased that the Auditor-General found that our ‘truth in sentencing’ measures have worked because more prisoners are staying behind bars for a greater portion of their sentence,” the minister’s spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. “Our Government believes that criminals belong behind bars and should not be released into Canadian society until they are no longer a threat to law-abiding citizens.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Apr. 28 2015, 7:44 PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Apr. 28 2015, 7:50 PM EDT