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October 23, 2001

Less 'paternal' judges put more women in prison

Population doubles

Tom Blackwell
National Post

The number of women in Canada's federal prisons has almost doubled in the last five years, partly because judges seem to have abandoned "paternal" attitudes and are punishing female criminals more harshly, two new government reports suggest.

One report warns that Corrections Canada might have to expand its facilities for women if the trend increases. The other report, by the same corrections department researcher, predicts an additional 24% jump in the women's federal prison population by 2004.

The studies note the number of crimes committed by women has decreased in recent years, but the number sentenced to more than two years behind bars -- which places them in the federal prison system -- has almost tripled.

The actual population size is closer to being only twice rather than three times as great as five years ago because of a number of other factors related to prison population statistics, including how early inmates are released on parole.

"The paternal state is disappearing a little bit," said Roger Boe, co-author of the reports. "To some extent, [judges] may be getting tougher on women.... It looks like women are starting to receive more prison sentences than before."

He said judges may also be taking advantage of the fact there is now a string of federal prisons for women across the country, while in the past most women sentenced to federal time had to be sent to a facility in Kingston, Ont., sometimes hundreds of kilometres from home.

Whatever the reason, it is a disturbing trend, said a spokeswoman for the Elizabeth Fry Society, a social service agency for female offenders.

Lawyers and judges believe the federal system provides better treatment and rehabilitation services for women than provincial jails, which may partly explain why more women are being sentenced to longer terms, said Kim Pate, Elizabeth Fry's national executive director. Some women are even requesting a tougher sentence so they can get into federal lock-ups because of this treatment, she said.

But the reality is the penitentiaries, while better than provincial jails, offer little programming to help female inmates, who often have a history of mental illness, abuse or drug addiction and pose little danger to society, Ms. Pate said. "We're very concerned.

"We've had some [mentally ill inmates] who weren't even sure where they were. I remember one woman in segregation asking me why this group home wouldn't let her walk out of her room."

There has been a steady decline in the crime rate over the past few years, reflected in a male prison population that has shrunk.

Like their male counterparts, fewer women are being charged with crimes now than in the past.

But the number of women in federal prisons jumped to 362 last December from 182 in 1995, according to one Corrections Canada report. That number is projected to grow by a further 24% by 2004.

At the same time, the number of women being sentenced to jail terms of less than two years has fallen, while the number sentenced to spend more than two years behind bars almost tripled between 1994 and 1999.

But the report cautions that the number of women in federal prisons is relatively small, so changes in the numbers may appear more dramatic than they are.

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