We’ve heard sentencing spiels from judges many times as they send offenders away to jail.
There are several sentencing principles that judges often mention, including the concept of deterrence. It’s the idea that incarcerating people will make them less likely to reoffend, while also sending a warning to others who may harbour criminal thoughts.
Over the years, we have often wondered how much deterrence is actually created by the NWT justice system.
One obvious problem is that many people before the courts in the NWT have been there numerous times. Some of them have lengthy criminal records stretching back decades. So obviously being incarcerated is not deterring them.
Then there are the curious reactions of people being sentenced to jail in the NWT. We rarely see an offender have an emotional response or outburst. In fact, we can’t think of one instance.
We initially believed that being visibly unmoved while being sentenced is a way in which offenders keep their honour intact in a public courtroom.
But after seeing it so often, we now believe that virtually no offenders are distraught at sentencing because it’s not that big of a deal to be sentenced to at most two years less a day and carried off to a territorial correctional facility.
There does not seem to be much deterrence happening there.
Of course, an offender will lose his or her freedom for a period at a time, but that does not seem to visibly bother them.
Even when an offender receives two years or more, which normally means prison time in the South, a judge will often recommend that person serve the sentence in the NWT to be close to family and, in the case of an Indigenous offender, closer to his or her culture.
We’re not saying that the NWT correctional system should revert to punishment without rehabilitation. We’re simply pointing out that it doesn’t seem to offer much deterrence.
And if incarceration in the NWT does not create deterrence, it is actually doing a disservice to inmates.
And that brings us to the recent visit by the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Social Development to gather input on a couple of bills, including a new Corrections Act.
One comment about the proposed bill by Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green caught our attention.
“It’s taking a totally different approach to corrections, where there’s more emphasis on rehabilitation and healing rather than on punishment, although if you’re in a correction facility then that is punishment,” said Green.
We have never been sentenced to jail in the NWT, so we don’t know for sure, but what we see in court certainly leads us to question whether the offenders themselves consider it to be significant punishment.
The discussion at the standing committee’s meeting also centred on fulfilling the ‘needs’ of inmates with programs and services so their time can be served constructively.
One resident observed it seems to be a “touchy-feely” kind of corrections system.
But Green stressed that the correctional centres are still going to be jails.
Maybe, maybe not. They certainly won’t be Alcatraz.