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In Canada, men aged 20 to 39 account for 61 per cent of people incarcerated in federal institutions and 58 per cent in provincial facilities. Yet, they represent only 17 per cent of the Canadian population.

In recent years, we have also observed that the “crime curve” – discovered nearly 300 years ago – is beginning to change: young people no longer stop committing crimes when they reach adulthood but tend to continue into their mid-twenties. With these findings in mind, we conducted a study of all 1,770 young adults who had been incarcerated for at least six months in Quebec between 2010 and 2011 and followed up with them over the ensuing five years.

Figure 1 shows the age of inmates on admission to prison between 2017 and 2022, based on data from Statistics Canada.

The study revealed that after a first incarceration, it is very difficult for young people aged 18 to 29 to regain their status as law-abiding citizens. Only 36.8 per cent manage to stay out of jail. On average, young men will remain free for 1,099 days (around three years) after their release from prison.

Being single is a major risk factor: single men return to prison almost a year sooner (1,091 days of freedom) than ex-prisoners who had a partner (1,350 days of freedom). The less educated remain free for an average of 807 days, while those with at least a high school diploma are only re-incarcerated after 1297 days.

First Nations people experienced an average of 766 days of freedom, compared with 1,120 for non-natives. Those who have committed a more violent crime are also at greater risk of returning to prison and returned to jail earlier an average of 200 days (1,103).

Alcohol and drug abuse problems also increase the risk of returning to prison: each additional point on the addiction scale raises the risk of recidivism by 6 per cent.

The perverse effect of monitored freedom

Finally, we were astonished to discover that young adults supervised after release returned more quickly to prison than those who received no supervision at all. In fact, supervision nearly doubles (187 per cent) the risk of returning to prison.

This is a very worrying finding, as we would expect probation and parole officers to be resilience tutors to facilitate the prisoner’s reintegration: our results tend to show that they seem to be mainly concerned with ensuring that the person complies with all the conditions imposed on them.

Since the number of conditions to be met is generally high, and the parole period is long – it can last up to two-thirds of the sentence – it’s hardly surprising that breaches occur. If a breach leads to further incarceration, the parole process becomes a system of revolving doors, making young people even more vulnerable each time they leave prison, both personally and socially.

A youth justice system that’s more than courts and prisons

Learning from our success in reducing youth imprisonment

Parents in prison : a public policy blind spot

We must decarcerate across the country, then fix the prison system

Is prison always the solution?

The use of incarceration as a social response to crime is based on the idea that criminals are rational people who calculate the “cost” of the offenses they commit and that, consequently, the longer and more numerous prison sentences are, the less temptation there will be to commit crimes.

However, a recent study conducted on a sample of 4.5 million participants from 15 different countries (including Canada) shows that people who are kept in the community do not re-offend any more than those who remain incarcerated. Prison therefore confers a “false” sense of security on citizens, while costing them almost ten times more than the alternative sanctions offered in the community.

Considering, moreover, that the crime rate has plummeted by nearly 70 per cent since 1991 (Canada’s peak, as illustrated in Figure 3), and that the seriousness of offenses has also plummeted by nearly 30per cent since 2010, we might wonder whether there might not have been other alternatives to consider before incarcerating young adults.

For example, when Canada had a higher rate of youth incarceration than the U.S., major changes were made to the criminal justice system with the adoption of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), so that youth incarceration can now be ordered only as a last resort. Since then, the incarceration rate for teenagers has almost halved in the space of a decade.

An overhaul of the adult criminal justice system could also be envisaged to reduce the incarceration rate.

Finland, whose incarceration rate was similar to ours (around 100 per 100,000 inhabitants), has already made this choice. After revising its criminal code, among other measures, the incarceration rate of its population halved between 1975 and 2020. With the sums saved, the Finnish government has set up intelligent prisons that enable inmates to maintain digital links with their loved ones and to work remotely.

Finland has also expanded the range of therapeutic services offered to incarcerated people, significantly reducing post-incarceration recidivism. These services include  schooling or vocational training, interventions aimed at quitting or reducing drug or alcohol use, interventions aimed at better anger or stress management, as well as strategies to improve interpersonal or parenting skills.

Such interventions are also offered in Canada, but our studies have shown that accessibility to these correctional programs differs from institution to institution and from region to region. Many of the people we interviewed indicated there was a wide disparity in the available programs. Many inmates also complained that they are frequently transferred from one facility to another, so they never stay in one place long enough to benefit from these services. Reducing the number of admissions would ensure that every prisoner gets the help he or she needs to reintegrate into society.

Another simple solution to the problem of the over-representation of young adults in Canadian prisons would be to limit detention to those who have committed violent crimes and transfer the resources thus saved to community services. This would make it possible to avoid re-incarcerating young adults for breaches of conditions, for example, which makes them even more fragile (loss of property and places of residence, loss of meaningful ties, etc.) and exposes them to an increased risk of recidivism, as the very short duration of their incarceration does not allow them to access interventions that could benefit them.

To a lesser extent, we could also measure the rate of maturation of young adults’ brains – which neuroscience studies show continues well beyond the age of 18 – to factor into sentencing. In general, all theories emphasize the central role of the many identity changes that occur during this developmental phase and the important role these changes play in desistance from crime among these young people.

We shouldn’t judge very young adults as fully responsible for their actions, knowing that they will subsequently have great difficulty remaining in the community.

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Isabelle F.-Dufour is a professor in the psycho-education program at Université Laval. She is also a regular researcher at the Institut Universitaire Jeunes en difficulté and at the International Centre for Comparative Criminology.

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