Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Parole Office Pandemonium

[Note: this is a long post, so I'm experimenting with bolding the highlights. I think it's ugly, so I'll only do it again if people find it useful.]

For those who have been on Mars the last little while, there has been quite the brou-ha-ha over the Ottawa Parole Office.

Last night, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) had a public consultation meeting on its proposal to move to 1010 Somerset, literally between the Plant Bath Recreation Centre and the O-Train tracks. West Side Action has a number of posts documenting before, during, and after the meeting.

A majority of the vocal residents have spoken against the relocation to this spot, citing proximity to the Plant Bath and Devonshire public school as their primary arguments. Another one I heard today was that unless a community vehemently opposes a parole office in their area, not only will it go in, but other related services will see it as an invitation to come on over.

My main take is against 1010 Somerset. But not for the reasons you might think--the site and I are at opposite ends of the Dalhousie Community Association's catchment area. Bear with me here.

It mainly boils down to its similarity to the current Gilmour street site. The primary reason the Parole Office is moving in the first place is because a handful of parents on Elgin Street Elementary's council raised a hell of a lot of ruckus about the parole office being kitty-corner to their children's school. Why were they not consulted before it was moved into their neighbourhood? Why did they even consider a site so close to a school? What are their policies and guidelines that drive their decision of where to locate the parole office? Not bad questions.

Constant pressure from this group, the community association, and the local councllor got CSC to agree to vacate their current location by the end of their lease in September 2009. And the race is on. CSC, using new guidelines for public consultation, now must find a new location before its lease is up.

Now, I have a hard time buying the argument that the Parole Office, by its very proximity to Elgin Street Elementary, is a hazard. It may be that I'm an assertive adult white male, or that I don't have elementary-school-aged kids, but I spend a lot of time in Minto Park, just across the street, and I even take naps in the park on nice summer afternoons, and I have never felt the slightest bit threatened there.

You wouldn't even notice the parole office if it weren't pointed out to you: I always thought the entrance to the parole office was the main one on Elgin with the "Government of Canada" signs, until I recently saw a photo indicating that it was actually the small door on Gilmour. I chalk that up to spinning it to more closely associate it with Elgin Street public school.

I'm also not aware of any empirical or objective argument opposing the current location. For all I've heard, the opposition to Elgin street is a purely emotional argument.

But let's assume for the sake of argument proximity to Elgin Street school is problematic. There certainly are a lot of people who seem to feel it is.

If Elgin is a bad location because of its proximity to Elgin Street Elementary and Jack Purcell Recreation Centre, then certainly 1010 Somerset is just as bad for its proximity to the Plant Bath and Devonshire. Barring any other advantage of Somerset over Elgin, you're just moving the problem from one community and dumping it on another. So keep it in my backyard until you can find a better location.

Now, I didn't go to the meeting, but Eric Darwin (writer of Dalhousie blog West Side Action) did, as did Megan Butcher, whom I've never heard of before. Megan wrote an excellent blog report on the meeting with a very clear head on the issue. Lots of other bloggers (including Eric, Hella Stella and Miss Vicky) have linked to Megan's blog entry, though I think I'm the first to do in a blog entry listed on Blogawa. (Vicky only mentioned it in the comments on her post. Also, I ran into Eric at another public meeting tonight, and as I was leaving I bumped into Erigami, who runs Blogawa, and introduced the two to each other. Hopefully this will facilitate West Side Action's addition to Blogawa!)

Eric pointed out that the parolees have long been complaining that the current Gilmour site is too far from the Transitway. The Somerset site is no closer. Another similarity between the two sites to support the status quo.

But Megan, who supports the 1010 Somerset site, brings some new information from last night's consultation that begins to tip my opinion.

Apparently, CSC needs to move from Elgin and Gilmour not only because of community opposition, but be because they've outgrown the space and their lease is running out. Of course I knew about the community opposition, and the end of the lease follows from it. But I didn't know that they outgrew the space. In fact, they don't even mention this on their consultation website. Is this a contrived excuse? Contrived or not, this detail tips my Elgin-Street-is-Good-Enough mentality.

So then the question shifts to why is 1010 Somerset a good site (or at least not a bad one).

Megan makes some good points, including:
  • There are already 75 parolees living in the area, and two halfway houses within 500m of the proposed site, but crime has not gone up. (Interestingly, this links back to the "invitation" argument I mentioned earlier. If this argument is used, then the halfway houses are in fact inviting the parole office!)

  • Different parolees have different regulations. Ones who are a risk to children can't go within a certain distance of schools, so they can't visit either location anyway. Those without this parole condition are presumably not a risk to children.

  • The parole office receives about 8 visits a day from parolees, the rest are visited in their houses or elsewhere in the community, and the number of parolees has gone down from 250 to 200 (though CSC apparently did say they had outgrown the current space...)

I think the most cutting point is in the comments, particularly this one by Centretown resident Sunny Marriner, who wrote the following (excerpted) to the CBC in response to Jeff Leiper of the Hintonburg Community Association appearing on one of their shows:
"Your guest kept referring to an "intuitive" reaction to describe what the response really is - bigoted. Even though he acknowledged in the interview that the fear was irrational and baseless, he provided no argument to support the community reaction and instead bafflingly asserted that you cannot "glibly" dismiss it. By that argument, if everyone in the community is afraid of an ethnic group, the community has a right to reject that group. This is the same position that has always been used to support racism, and it betrays our justice system, which is premised on the notion that individuals can serve a sentence and then rejoin the community." (my emphasis; this is an excerpt)
People on parole, by definition, are making the transition from months or years in prison to a (hopefully) wholesome and productive life in the community.

How healthy is it for our society when that community tells them they're not welcome?

- RG>


Asteroidea Press said...

Hi there - Found your blog through my stats! Thanks for reading so carefully.

The only thing I want to add to your post is that according to CSC, the main reason they've outgrown their space even though numbers have gone down is that they've increased the ratio of parole officers to parolees (i.e. hired more officers), making parole officers' case loads small. They've also hired an Aboriginal Liaison Officer and made dedicated space for volunteers.

That's all from the Q&A.


Anonymous said...

I'm just blown away by this whole debate. People are so ridiculous. What could be safer than having a parole office or police station in your neighbourhood? My first federal job was in a parole office. It was like pulling teeth to get parolees anywhere near the place. I lived not to far from the office in downtown Toronto and I'm pretty sure it was the safest few blocks in the city

RealGrouchy said...

Megan - thanks for the details! I've heard horror stories from parole officers when I was in Criminology about the size of their caseloads and inadequate resources to cope with them. If they're outgrowing Elgin Street because of more resources, all the power to them! Helping people coming out of prison is something the community should be fighting for, as opposed to the ever-popular calls to put send more people there.

XUP - most people fear what they don't know.

I'll also add that Kelly Egan has a decent column today on CSC's procedural failures in this whole debacle.

- RG>

Darrell said...

While recidivism is certainly a problem, I'd suspect that a parolee is at about the lowest possible risk of recidivism when they're either going to or coming from visiting their parole office.

I'm a little surprised to hear they want to move further from the courthouse (yes, I've been living on Mars).