Canadians in American jails and the prisoner lottery

Jul 6, 2016 By Matthew Friedberg
It’s unfortunate that hundreds of Canadians are incarcerated in American prisons and have such a low chance of being transferred back to Canada to serve out their time closer to home, Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg says.

“It's regrettable in part because the U.S. has a much higher incarceration rate than we do here in Canada," he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“It would be more humane to allow them to serve their sentences closest to where they have families and community ties."

Friedberg comments on the issue as the Liberal government promises to do more to help those Canadians who are imprisoned abroad. For now, though, it appears that the odds of being transferred from an American prison to Canada to serve out a sentence is akin to winning the lottery, says the Canadian Press.

Data obtained by the wire service from a number of sources — including Global Affairs Canada, Correctional Service of Canada, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Department of Justice — reveals that the vast majority of Canadian prisoners serving time south of the border haven’t been permitted to be transferred to Canada, says the article.

The data shows that, overall, the U.S. turns down more than half of all Canadian transfer requests, it says.

As of May 18, 2016, 964 Canadians — including 420 in state facilities and 394 in federal prisons — were imprisoned in the U.S, reveals the data. It’s the biggest proportion of Canadians held in foreign prisons.

Friedberg says the numbers aren’t surprising, given more Canadians travel to the United States than any other country in the world.

“So it stands to reason that there would be some Canadians in custody in the United States,” he says.

Prisoner transfers from the U.S. to Canada require both state and federal approval under the International Transfer of Offenders Act, which was negotiated in 1978. Between then and 2014, U.S. federal authorities allowed 1,256 Canadians to return to Canada.

“The state, however, allowed just 161 Canadians to transfer. Florida, for example, which holds the most Canadians among states, allowed just four of them to leave between 2000 and 2010,” the article says.

“In the past decade, American authorities approved 803 transfer applications — 759 federal and 44 state. They denied 867 applications — 639 federal and 228 state. Other data show Ottawa approved 253 transfers from Canadian offenders over the past five years only to have 17 of those denied by American authorities,” it says.

Friedberg notes that some applications to transfer to Canada may be declined by American authorities because the public interest requires persons convicted of serious crimes to serve time close to the community where the offence was committed.

Friedberg says it may also be a low priority for Canadian politicians to assist prisoners to return to Canada.

“Canadians do not enjoy a right to serve their sentence in the country of their origin,” he says. “I don’t think there is a political will to have prisoners serve their time in their home country.”