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Restitution over incarceration for Conrad Black

Special to Globe and Mail Update

So a U.S. court may today want to put Conrad Black behind bars.

Whatever for?

It can't be because the Americans need more inmates for a swollen penal system whose total population, put in one place, could form a city the size of Toronto.

Nor can it be because they have good reason to think Conrad Black's going "inside" will deter other potential white-collar criminals tempted to steal from their shareholders or workers. Mandatory prison sentences for drug offences have given the United States as little victory in its "war on drugs" as it has gained from its war on Iraq. So is there much serious thought that embezzlers, tax evaders, "book cookers," etc., will suddenly convince themselves they are not smart enough to outwit the law?

Nor can the purpose of a long prison sentence be to protect public safety because regardless of what people may think of him, this Toronto boy turned British lord would be no threat to any of us if we met him in a dark alley some night.

Neither can it be to teach this obviously brilliant man that he has not been as clever as he thought he was. Long-term imprisonment has been demonstrated to be about the most ineffective process of rehabilitation ever devised because when 70 per cent of the inmates have been in custody before, the pass-fail rate is all on the side of failure.

So maybe the reason is that crime must be punished and shutting malefactors up for extended periods of time is the only option the judicial authorities can think of. But does it have to be?

Why not confiscate every asset a white-collar criminal has and devote it to his victims? If Conrad Black's real estate and other holdings — like his bestselling books — were turned into cash and distributed among the people he is said to have victimized, it could do more good than shutting him up at public expense. Why spend $87,000 a year to imprison someone when it would cost next to nothing to turn his possessions into millions that could benefit the injured parties in this case? In ancient times, fines were distributed among the victims. Why not now?

Of course, that is not going to happen. And the American legal system is going to show itself as unimaginative and myopic as its Canadian counterpart. But it's overtime for taxpayers in both countries to start asking critical questions about a criminal justice system as unproductive as long-term incarceration has been. When more taxpayer money goes into shutting a white-collar offender up than is spent on a hospital patient or a university student, isn't it time to rethink our assumptions?

Reginald Stackhouse is principal emeritus and research professor at Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto.

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