This article is about the penal system and prison. The parole system is also discussed.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1988. 3 pages.

Should We Lock Them Up?

The journalists picked up the news quickly. The newspaper editors instant­ly nodded their approval in allowing another sensational story to cover the front page. Soon all the subscribers would know that another convict on parole had fallen to his old ways and had murdered another victim. Such stories, often described in vivid detail, are not forgotten quickly. The conse­quence of such reporting is that the public is forced to ask itself serious questions about Canada's penal system.


Societies have struggled for cen­turies to come up with an appropriate solution for those members of society who do not live by the accepted rules. Many different approaches have been taken. One was to banish the person to an island for several years or for the balance of his life. Here he could live in freedom, but had no possibility of returning home. Most solutions, how­ever, were much more physically cruel than that, such as burning and dismem­berment. Today, such simple solutions are no longer possible. Not only are there very few places in the world where convicts could be sent, (and from which they could not easily re­turn) but Western societies no longer tolerate physically cruel and unusual punishments.

In Canada's brief history, our penal system has not been unlike that of many other Western countries. We progressed from giving fines to law­breakers, to eventually putting them in institutions known as prisons. The prison was little more than an internal banishment, comparable to the exiles of several years before. The biggest difference was that the latter afforded the convict no opportunity to begin a new life, whereas the former usually did. For the serious crimes, the death penalty was used on a more or less fre­quent basis. Over the past few decades, however, the prison has become more and more frequently used, even though few people have been able to define its exact purpose.

Prison Sentence🔗

On the one hand, a prison sen­tence is meant to deter other would-be criminals from doing the same thing. The rationale is that if such a person hears that another was given a very undesirable punishment for a crime, that person is less likely to do a similar deed. This purpose of punishment has been clear ever since Old Testament times, when the people were told to punish lawbreakers so that others would "hear and fear." 1

Prisons are also meant to protect society from people who did not ap­pear to fit in with the rest. Supposedly then, the prison should be the place where all criminals, but especially mur­derers, are who have proven to be a danger to the public. However, most people who have committed a murder have done so in a violent outburst of anger that would not be expected to be repeated. If a man is likely to kill again, he should be locked up so that he is unable to repeat his actions. This purpose, however, loses some of its im­portance when one considers that only a fraction of all offenders, including violent ones, are actually being de­tained in prisons. The majority is never caught.

As well, it is meant to punish the person for committing the crime. After all, since the person committed a crime, he should be expected to pay for it and suffer. In this way, a prison sentence is similar to the strap at school — make the offender feel the consequences of his crime.

Since someday the prisoner will be back on the streets again, the prison is also expected to somehow reform the prisoner so that he will not commit a similar crime again. Thus the prison guards and other prison officials have the onerous task of attempting to re­form a group of convicts living in an abnormal setting with a criminal value system.

Although perhaps the above pur­poses of the prison institution appear to be quite commendable, it did not take too long before people began to complain that the institution did not work. In the United States, a Commis­sion reporting in 1931 concluded that "the present prison system is antiquated and inefficient. It does not reform the criminal. It fails to protect society. There is reason to believe that it con­tributes to the increase of crime by hardening the prisoner. We are con­vinced that a new type of penal institu­tion must be developed."2 In Canada, similar voices could be heard. Conse­quently, a "new" phenomenon ap­peared several decades ago: the parole system.

Parole System🔗

Parole is a procedure "whereby a person is granted a conditional release from the penal institution in which he originally was confined."3 It was for­mally instituted in Canada in 1959. The philosophy underlying this pro­cedure was that the convict would be more able to ease back into society while under the care and supervision of the parole officer, rather than wast­ing time in prison. It seemed to be a vast improvement over keeping con­victs in prison for the same period of time and expecting them to be able to live normally in society after they had lived in an environment for several years in which they had absolutely no responsibilities and no independence. To what extent has the parole system been better than the one which it re­placed?

Despite what the public has been led to believe, it appears that almost all who are granted parole do not run into another serious violation of the law. On the whole, the parole system appears to be working quite well, based of course on the criteria which it set for itself — the rehabilitation of the of­fender and the protection of society. Statistics suggest that almost eighty percent of inmates who are granted parole do not subsequently have to be read­mitted to a federal institution. 4

Recently here in Canada the prison and parole system have been under in­tense scrutiny. As a result, much litera­ture has appeared on the topic. This in­cludes a recent report from the Cana­dian Bar Association, a 1987 report from the Canadian Sentencing Com­mission, and, most recently, a report from a committee of parliamentarians.5 Most appear to agree that the present prison system is expensive, ineffective, and more likely to do harm than good. They came to this conclusion, just as did the committee in the United States in 1931. Prisons, meant to re­form a criminal, frequently do the op­posite, and twist a person's character as Dicken's Fagan hoped to do to poor Oliver. There in prison many small­time offenders have spent some time and have been introduced to the art of professional crime. Even besides that, prisons cost taxpayers millions of dol­lars every year. Alternatives can be utilized at only a fraction of the cost. Interestingly enough, the cost of parole, for example, is only about eleven per­cent of the cost of institutional care. 6

Recommendations were therefore made that alternatives such as proba­tion, restitution, halfway houses, com­munity service orders and reconcilia­tion programs be used much more ex­tensively than before. Prison terms should be given only to violent of­fenders who are a danger to society. Terms should not normally be given to thieves, tax evaders, and others whose crimes do not pose a safety hazard to society. In other words, the recommen­dations urge a much greater emphasis on the rehabilitative role of the system, and a decreased emphasis on its puni­tive character.

In itself, this direction is quite a laudable one, but we must be careful not to completely forget the other pur­poses of our penal system. An overem­phasis on the individual's rehabilita­tion will invariably lead to problems. The suggested increased use of alter­natives to the prison system is excel­lent, but the parliamentary committee failed to deal appropriately with vio­lent offenders. It should have recom­mended the return of the death penalty for those who had proved to have committed a premeditated murder. This is not only in harmony with the com­mands of God, but might also act as a strong deterrent to potentially planned murders and would be beneficial for the safety of the general public. Until capital punishment returns, prisons will continue to be places in which peo­ple generally waste their time.

Will the present system really be changed, or have all the recent rum­blings been mere echoes of discontent expressed in earlier years? We hope that changes will be made, changes which are substantial enough to make a real difference. There will be a need for correctional services as long as man is alive. Then the governments, whom God has appointed in order to curb man's sin, should also provide that justice is meted out to those who refuse to abide by its laws. Parole is an ex­cellent opportunity to grant opportuni­ty to the offender who wishes to begin again in an exemplary lifestyle.

Im­prisonment must be given to protect society, to ensure justice, to deter oth­ers, and to correct the offender. If capital punishment, prisons, parole, and the alternatives to prison are used wisely, these objectives can indeed be met.


  1. ^ Deuteronomy 13:11.
  2. ^ Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973) p. 271.
  3. ^ Dennis Teitsma, "Imprisonment and Release," Reformed Perspective, vol. 2, no. 4; p. 13.
  4. ^ Correctional Service, Canada, Basic Facts About Corrections in Canada: 1986, p. 20
  5. ^  Kirk Makin, "Unlocking the door of prison reform," The Globe and Mail, September 17, 1988; p. D2.
  6. ^ Correctional Service, p. 29.

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