In the news: More beds, more bodies - Induced demand and Ottawa's new jail

Earlier this week, University of Ottawa criminology professor Justin Piché published an article in the Ottawa Citizen arguing that the Government of Ontario should not build a new larger jail to replace the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC). According to the OCDC Task Force report, the current jail is meant to have a capacity of 496 inmates (i.e. 440 men and 56 women). In his article, Professor Piché offers two main reasons why this proposed 725-bed jail should not be built - the jail will cost too much and imprisonment causes more harm than it cures. There is a third reason - one that Professor Piché mentions in passing in the article but has written about in the past - that should also be highlighted.

Economists sometimes talk about a phenomenon known as "induced demand." Put simply, in some circumstances, increasing the supply of a product will increase in the demand for that product. The best examples of induced demand are highways. First, the existing highway system becomes clogged with too many drivers. As a result, many drivers drive on non-peak hours, take alternate routes, or rely on public transportation. Second, the government builds a new and bigger highway to replace the existing highway system. However, many of the drivers using non-peak hours, taking alternate routes, or relying on public transportation start using the new highway system at peak hours. Finally, the new and bigger highway system becomes clogged as well. In short, if you build more lanes, you invite more drivers.

Similarly, if we build more beds, we invite more bodies. A bigger jail will fill up to capacity and eventually lead to overcrowding. In his article, Professor Piché writes that "[t]he history of carceral expansion in this country is littered with examples of new facilities being built to address horrid conditions of confinement, only to usher-in new correctional crises." In his 2012 doctoral thesis, Professor Piché elaborated on this point, making specific reference to the phenomenon of induced demand:

... the establishment of new prison space can lead to increases in the rate of imprisonment on the basis that "each prison cell built adds to the capacity of judges everywhere... to send more offenders to prison for longer." Put simply, creating new prison spaces means they are likely to be filled. A 50 percent increase in the number of women admitted to federal penitentiaries from 2000 to 2010, following the establishment of five facilities across Canada in the mid-1990s and the 2004 opening of another regional prison in British Columbia that replaced P4W, is a recent example of this phenomenon known as "capacity induced demand" in action. With new prisons touted by CSC for their gender- and culturally-centred programming, "more women are being sentenced to longer periods of incarceration so that they can supposedly benefit from the treatment programs available". It is this experience that led the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of women in prison, to abandon its long-held reformist roots and adopt an abolitionist stance.  [Pages 14-15, citations omitted]

The problems with the OCDC - the overcrowding, the lock-downs - have raised awareness in the justice system about the problems with over-incarceration, both at the bail stage and the sentencing stage. Lessons are being taught in this crisis, but building a bigger jail only postpones when our justice system will actually learn these lessons.