Justice spending spree is criminal

U.S. President Barack Obama made a prison visit the media highlight of his week long campaign to make the Justice system fairer. One of his key reasons for reform is the $80 billion that is being spent annually on incarceration. 

Here in Manitoba, Justice expenditures have been well documented. According to Manitoba’s Auditor General, since 2008 alone the provincial government has spent $182 million to increase prison capacity and will need to allocate another $600 million to meet projected demand. Add to this a $100 million annual increase in operating costs and it is safe to assume that, not including associated policing and court costs, a full five years of the revenue from the recent PST increase will be used up meeting this growing demand. The lack of preventative action on incarceration explains at least part of the Manitoba government’s current budget woes.  

Obama says the main culprit behind high incarceration rates is unemployment of young black and Latino American men who currently make up 60 percent of prisoners. Here in Manitoba, 78 percent of inmates are Aboriginal and 93 percent are men – a truly astonishing figure given only 8 percent of our population is Aboriginal and male.  We all continue to pay for the harsh legacy of residential schools.

So are Aboriginal ex-inmates employable in Manitoba?  I work at Winnipeg’s Social Enterprise Centre in the North End. The SEC houses many non-profit businesses that hire ex-gang members and others with employment barriers. Our collective waiting lists for employment is well over four years long.     

We call these chronic offenders the “million dollar men” because that’s easily the amount of taxpayer dollars we sink into each one of them.  They have long rap sheets; substance abuse issues; no high school; no driver’s licenses; no work experience; and worst of all, no hope. 

I have to admit, I originally thought these guys were write-offs. But boy was I wrong. For most of them, a job in a supportive environment arrests the crime dead in its tracks which suggests to me to fight crime and its costs, we should be focusing on jobs for this demographic. Social enterprises like BUILD have had tremendous success moving these surprisingly inspiring men and women into the work force. The problem is that due to outdated government strategies, the people looking for work come to us in droves but the training dollars and contracts come in dribbles.   

Governments around the world are turning to what is being called the Solutions Economy to solve entrenched social problems by creating big markets for problem solvers. The dream in Manitoba is that social enterprises can create thousands of jobs for people that have troubles accessing the labour market by doing energy and water retrofits on the most inefficient homes where low income people live. We can grow too to do most of Manitoba Housing’s trade-based work. There is lots of work to do and long line ups of people to do the work but precious little to connect them together. 

Neither the Federal government, nor the City of Winnipeg have any relationship with social enterprises in Manitoba. The provincial government dabbles but despite a lot of talk have made very little progress on social enterprise growth overall in their long tenure. This is not a surprise given outdated procurement rules, business support programs that exclude social enterprises, and no extensive landscape implemented to get social enterprises off the ground. 

Despite this arduous backdrop, a fraction of Manitoba’s low income housing has been retrofitted by ex-cons generating utility bill reductions of over $20 million. This work can be supersized in three simple steps. Firstly, by ensuring Manitoba Housing contracts go, at market rates, to social enterprises who hire people with criminal records. This can be supplemented by a solid training program to ensure the right demographic is being hired.  Secondly, by modernizing Manitoba Hydro’s 1960 mandate so that the corporation would be required to engage social enterprises in a meaningful way to lower utility bills where low income people live.  And lastly, by requiring Manitoba Justice to use a portion of the future savings generated by non-profits who keep people of high risk to re-offend on the straight and narrow through, for example, training and employment initiatives.      

Taxpayers would be the main beneficiary of this approach, not just through lower Justice spending but also through massive reductions in utility bills - given government pays the utility tab for social assistance recipients and tenants in public and non-profit housing. 

Social enterprises shouldn’t have to fight government and its agencies to help it solve problems – government instead should lay the framework to ensure problem solvers have it easy.  The solutions economy grows to fill the space it has been given and right now in Manitoba, there isn’t much space.   

While there have long been critics of the Justice system from the left of the spectrum, the right is getting on board too. American Republican giants Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich have endorsed prison reform in the name of taxpayer relief by advocating for cost-effective measures such as drug treatment, job training, promoting social enterprises and alternative sentencing – all measures that reduce re-offense rates which at the same time cuts crime.    

Imagine a world where we could exponentially increase the number of problem solvers and their collective impacts? We all know that the world must change in important ways, we must build freeways to get us where we need to go.

Governments have molded an economy that creates problems; surely we can mold an economy now that solves them.