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New jail unlikely to reduce Aboriginal incarceration: criminologist

Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie suggested earlier this week that hosting a new prison on the First Nation's land is going to help reduce the over representation of Aboriginal people in the corrections system.

But Simon Fraser University criminology professor Neil Boyd said he thinks that's an unlikely result of building the new jail.

"Aboriginal people are over-represented in the corrections system," Louie said during a Feb. 6 press conference to announce a 360-cell provincial jail will be built on land the band owns near Oliver. "We would hope that this project being the first of its kind on an Indian reserve that we can work out and change the statistics of aboriginal incarceration in this country and that we can show to the rest of Canada how to work for the rehabilitation of not just the First Nation inmates but also all of the inmates that wind up in corrections."

Louie did not offer any details on how the project would change those statistics, other than to say that "our people want to be involved in the rehabilitation of our people."

He was unavailable for an interview later in the week, saying by email that he was too ill to talk on the phone. The message said he didn't know how running a jail would make a difference, but there are a lot of meetings and discussions to happen on the issue in the next year.

"I don't see how building a prison addresses the issue of aboriginal over-representation," said SFU criminologist Boyd.

The composition of the prison population is a combination of who commits crimes, who gets caught, who is charged and who is sentenced, he said. "It's pretty difficult to understand how building another prison is going to change that."

Statistics Canada reported in 2009 that while 3.1 percent of adults in Canada self-identified as Aboriginal, Aboriginal adults were 18 percent of the people in provincial and territorial custody.

A new prison could help with the problem of over-crowding, but any gain is likely to be undone by the federal government's omnibus crime bill, said Boyd. "One gets the feeling given the impact of the crime bill it will be more business as usual in yet another facility."

The bill will mean a lot more non-violent offenders such as marijuana growers will be going to jail, he said, adding expenses for provinces without making any improvement in public safety. "Ontario and Quebec are certainly concerned," he said. "B.C. should be."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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