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Recent Trends and Patterns Shaping theCorrections Population in Canada: 1983/84 to 1996/97

Roger Boe,
Larry Motiuk
Michael Muirhead

Research Branch
Correctional Service of Canada
May, 1998



During the five-year period 1989/90 to 1994/95 the correctional populations in Canada grew very rapidly. According to a special report prepared for Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Ministers Responsible for Justice, the federal penitentiary population grew at an especially rapid rate – by 22%, a growth rate twice the historic average. Provincial prison populations also grew rapidly, although their 12% growth was relatively more modest by comparison. Fortunately, correctional populations have begun to recede from their peaks in 1994 and 1995, and the correctional system appears to be emerging from this period of unusual growth.

Although the period of very rapid growth has abated, there remains considerable interest in identifying and understanding its sources. A special working group of Deputy Ministers and Heads of Corrections continues to address the issue in ongoing progress reports. The Research Branch, of the Correctional Service is also examining these correctional population growth issues, to identify and quantify those factors which might hopefully lead to better forecasting procedures. This paper reports on some of our preliminary findings.


Table of Contents


Table of Contents *

Sources of rapid population growth *

a. Trends in annual prison admissions *

b. Trends in the average sentence length *

c. Trends in the average time served *

d. Summary and conclusions *

APPENDIX: Data and Charts *



Sources of rapid population growth

A number of causes for the rapid correctional population growth were suggested by the special FTP working group. However, the consensus view endorsed by the jurisdictions was that several factors in combination were the likely source of the rapid growth (p. 2):

  • "At the provincial/territorial level of the system more custodial sentences were being given and for longer periods of time; there has been significant growth in charges for sexual and other assaults; and
  • Federally, there have been fewer conditional releases granted and more revocations of conditional release resulting in more time was being served by more offenders; in addition there has been significant growth in the proportion of offenders serving sentences for violent offences including homicide."

The crime rate in Canada began to decline in 1991 so the sudden correctional population growth was not attributable to increasing crime. It was most likely attributable to a combination of other factors, and the three most plausible causes are examined here, namely:

  1. a rapid increase in prison and penitentiary admissions;
  2. changes in the average sentence length handed down by the courts; and
  3. changes in the average time served in custody by offenders.

Unfortunately sufficient time series data are not yet available from the new Canadian Criminal Justice System Adult Court Survey so we cannot say much about actual sentencing trends. The analysis will obviously benefit once this court data can be brought to bear on the issue.

a. Trends in annual prison admissions

There is little doubt that a sharp increase in annual admissions contributed significantly to the rapid increase in the Provincial/Territorial prison custody population. This increase was notable at both jurisdictional levels although the build-up in annual admissions began earlier and peaked earlier provincially – e.g., it occurred mainly in the period up to 1986/87 to 1992/93. The number of provincial/territorial admissions peaked in 1992/93 (which was a year earlier than the peak in federal admissions, 1993/94, see below). This was predominately caused by increases in the "remand" (e.g., the non-sentenced) admission population that began in 1985/86. For most of this period, if remand admissions had not increased the admission trend would likely have remained relatively flat. This is clear from Chart 1A:

Our analysis of federal admissions focuses primarily on federal Warrant of Committal admissions (e.g., those with a determinate sentence of 2-years or more). Other admission types were excluded on order to be able to examine aggregate sentence length and time served. The federal Warrant admissions sample accounts for nearly two-thirds of all federal admissions each year (revocation admissions account for the next largest proportion, or about 30 percent of admissions each year). Federal admission trends show that the annual number of Warrant of Committal admissions began a noticeable increase only in fiscal year 1989/90.

Federal Warrant of Committal admissions increased by almost 1,000 offenders per year (nearly 25%) between 1989/90 and 1993/94 (Table 1B: Appendix), from 4,004 to 4,948 each year. After their peak in 1993/94, admissions then decreased to 4,569 by 1996/97. Clearly, the increase in federal Warrant admissions was very pronounced, and contributing in large measure to the rapid growth experienced during the period.

The rapid federal growth began about two years after Provincial/Territorial admissions had begun their increase. Federal growth accelerated from 1991/92 through to 1993/94, lagging the Provincial/Territorial peak by one year. Because the two increases are so closely synchronised, we might reasonably infer that federal and provincial/territorial admission increases were in response to a common force or series of events. What these are remains the great un-answered question. Since their peak, admission growth for both levels of jurisdiction has significantly declined.

b. Trends in the average sentence length

Statistics Canada publishes annually the average ("median", in days) aggregate sentence for sentenced admissions to provincial/territorial custody and the average ("mean", in months) aggregate sentence for federal admissions.

The average sentence length reported for provincial/territorial offenders is about 31 days and it has remained at or about this length since 1988/89. Median aggregate sentence length for provincial/territorial sentenced admissions have increased since the early 1980s (as shown in Chart 2A), from 28 days to 31 days, an increase of nearly 11%. However, this increase occurred between 1984/85 and 1988/89. Since then the median sentence has remained stable (with the exception of the one-year spike in 1994/95, which appears to be transitory). The combination of larger numbers of remand admissions (as noted in the previous section) along with 11% longer average sentences for sentenced admissions would contribute substantially to the growth of the provincial and territorial prison population.

The average aggregate sentence for federal Warrant of Committal admissions is significantly longer compared to the provincial/territorial average, at about 44 months. This reflects the longer sentences of offenders sentenced to federal custody under the two-year rule (i.e., custodial sentences of two years or more are served in federal penitentiaries, while sentences under two years – e.g., two-years-less-a-day and under – are served under provincial/territorial jurisdiction). The trend in average sentence length over the same period is also different. As indicated (Chart 2B, below), the trend is towards shorter federal aggregate sentences over this period.

There is some year-to-year variability in the federal average, but the general trend is unmistakably towards shorter federal aggregate sentences. Unlike the evidence presented for provincial/territorial average sentence length, the federal trend forces us to the conclusion that the federal correctional population growth could not have resulted from an increase in the length of the average sentence.

c. Trends in the average time served

The average time served on recent provincial/territorial sentences (for sentenced releases) appears to now be about 25 days. The average aggregate sentence was found to be about 31 days, so this indicates that the average sentenced provincial offender serves about three-quarters of the aggregate sentence in custody. The aggregate sentence length has remained fairly stable over the past decade while the average time served has increased somewhat during this period, thereby contributing to the growth of the provincial/territorial inmate populations.

As can be seen from Chart 3A, the average time served for provincial/territorial sentenced offenders increased during the period but time served for remand offenders remained relatively stable. Remand admissions, however, accounted for most of the admission growth over the past decade and the time served for remand releases shows no real increase. The net effect of these various trends is that the overall time served in provincial/territorial custody has probably decreased slightly although there is a significant spike in the sentenced time served in recent years. With respect to correctional population growth, it is difficult to see any clear pattern although time served for sentenced releases and for total releases have increased since 1992/93.

For federal offenders, the average time served in federal custody until first release reflects the discretionary release aspect of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (1992). The data collected is for Warrant of Committal admissions and indicates that the average time served in federal custody has remained relatively constant over the period under review. Chart 3B (below) shows the average time served for offenders admitted over the past decade.

Only the trend for offenders with shorter aggregate sentences (e.g., those between 2>3 and including 4>5 years) are shown in the chart – this is because the follow-up period for offenders who received longer sentences is not sufficient for good estimates in the more recent years. (Note that offenders sentenced to

terms between 2 and 5 years represent nearly 80% of all Warrant admissions).

Most federal offenders – those serving shorter 2 to 5 year sentences, at least – serve about one-half of their sentence in custody. The remaining time on the sentence is served under supervision in the community. This compares to about one-third of the sentence that the average provincial/territorial offender serves in custody.

The trend in the average time served in federal custody appears to have decreased slightly over the past decade. It is therefore unlikely that the length of time served would have materially contributed to the recent rapid growth of the federal custody population.

d. Summary and conclusions

The trends examined in this report indicates that – of the three major factors – the sudden growth in the federal and provincial/territorial correctional populations appears as a result mainly of the growth of new federal/provincial/ territorial admissions. This growth appears first in the provincial/territorial system, and lasts about five years (from 1986/87 to 1991/92). The federal increase begins two years later (starting in 1989/90), also lasts about five years, and ends (in 1994/95) after provincial admission growth has peaked.

Secondly, provincial/territorial systems also have to take into account the increase (11%) in aggregate sentences, along with a slight recent increase in the average time served. Both the average sentence and time served trends show a decrease for federal admissions, suggesting that these factors had a moderating effect on penitentiary population growth.

If Canada’s prison population growth was mainly driven by an increase in new admissions, what were the forces driving the rapid growth in admissions during the period? The answer to this question cannot be derived from this data. It is certainly a question for further research.

The special working group mentioned a number of other factors in addition to the three examined here. Perhaps some of the answers are to be found in that list. In addition, we anticipate some impact has resulted from a series of major changes in the corrections acts (e.g., Bill C-67, 1987, Bill C-36, 1992) as well as several ongoing changes to the Criminal Code of Canada. Finally, Canada also experienced over the past two decades: two major recessions, a massive re-structuring of various sectors of the economy, and considerable regional re-structuring. These changes have all had some impact had on correctional population growth, but what this is has yet to be satisfactorily determined.

A further challenge is posed by these results – rapid increases in new admissions are notoriously difficult to predict. The Correctional Service has just beginning to develop a forecasting model to predict new federal admission. We anticipate that this development will lead to a great deal more knowledge about correctional population dynamics than we possess today, hopefully including a surer grasp of the general predictors of growth. We will hopefully be reporting on the results of this research in the not too distant future.


APPENDIX: Data and Charts

Provincial Custody Admissions, Median Sentence and Time Served
Table 1A: Provincial Custody – Annual Admissions to Custody
Year 1983 /84 1984 /85 1985 /86 1986 /87 1987 /88 1988 /89 1989 /90 1990 /91 1991 /92 1992 /93 1993 /94 1994 /95 1995 /96 1996 /97
Sentenced Admissions 129,748 123,771 119,299 116,269 117,325 116,051 115,100 114,834 120,733 121,817 119,789 117,938 114,562 107,997
Remand Admissions 60,885 61,042 63,722 67,638 72,816 82,202 84,797 92,893 123,014 123,929 120,945 120,922 115,768 117,462
Total Admissions 190,633 184,813 183,021 183,907 190,141 198,253 199,897 207,727 243,747 245,746 240,734 238,860 230,330 225,459
Table 2A: Provincial Custody - Median Aggregate Sentence (Days)
Year 1983 /84 1984 /85 1985 /86 1986 /87 1987 /88 1988 /89 1989 /90 1990 /91 1991 /92 1992 /93 1993 /94 1994 /95 1995 /96 1996 /97
Median Aggregate Sentence (Days) 28 28 30 30 30 31 31 31 31 31 31 33 31 31
Table 3A:Provincial Custody – Median Time Served (Days)
Year 1983 /84 1984 /85 1985 /86 1986 /87 1987 /88 1988 /89 1989 /90 1990 /91 1991 /92 1992 /93 1993 /94 1994 /95 1995 /96 1996 /97
Sentenced Releases 24 14 20 22 21 21 22 20 19 18 26 27 27 24
Remand Releases 11 5 6 6 6 5 6 6 5 4 6 6 6 7
Total Releases 19 9 12 13 9 9 12 10 11 10 11 8 12 16
Source: Adult Correctional Services in Canada, 1995/96. CCJS, Statistics Canada. Cat. 85-211 (annual)


Table 1B: Federal Warrant of Committal Admissions by Aggregate Sentence
FY 2<3 3<4 4<5 5<6 6<7 7<8 8<9 9<10 10+ Total
1985-86 1462 938 449 285 132 112 82 48 136 3644
1986-87 1477 921 487 260 129 132 71 40 155 3672
1987-88 1458 898 460 281 147 99 82 39 162 3626
1988-89 1524 933 438 276 145 111 85 46 157 3715
1989-90 1644 1040 506 283 173 116 65 42 135 4004
1990-91 1588 1018 540 317 166 88 93 45 150 4005
1991-92 1928 1191 552 337 171 120 94 49 148 4590
1992-93 2050 1190 640 340 188 141 108 46 166 4869
1993-94 2037 1281 603 363 214 134 93 57 166 4948
1994-95 2041 1165 558 327 199 141 96 58 182 4767
1995-96 1961 1015 530 326 162 140 62 42 153 4391
1996-97 1,818 1,019 617 334 183 133 78 59 142 4,569


Table 2B: Aggregate Sentence at Warrant Admission Table 3B: Average Time Served to First Release (Months)
Fiscal Year Warrant Admissions Mean Aggregate Sentence (Mo.) Sentence Length


Sentence Length


Sentence Length


1985-86 3,644 46.6 15.71 21.04 25.35 22.25
1986-87 3,672 47.3 14.17 18.77 23.70 21.67
1987-88 3,626 47.2 14.71 18.57 25.27
1988-89 3,715 47.2 14.82 19.10 24.52
1989-90 4,004 46.0 14.39 18.23 22.15
1990-91 4,005 46.6 13.79 17.84 23.59
1991-92 4,590 44.9 13.41 17.47 22.52
1992-93 4,869 45.5 13.23 17.31 23.79
1993-94 4,948 45.5 13.68 18.35 23.70
1994-95 4,767 45.8 13.96 16.97
1995-96 4,391 44.5 13.80
1996-97 4,569 43.1