Government’s tough on crime agenda is bad policy
NationalPost.com – FullComment
January 10, 2011. John Ivison
The Conservatives unveiled the latest phase of their federal prison building boom Monday, as government MPs fanned out to announce 634 new beds will be built at prisons in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, at a cost of $158-million.
The main reason for the explosion in prison building is the government’s tough on crime agenda, including the abolition of the two-for-one pre-trial custody credit, which will lead to a significant increase in the number of criminals incarcerated.
The cost of the tough on crime drive is in some dispute. Correctional Services Canada estimates an increase in prisoner numbers of 3,400, requiring 2,700 new spaces, at a cost of $2-billion.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, thinks that low-balls the price-tag. His office puts the increase in prisoner numbers at 4,200, at a cost of $1.8-billion for facility construction and an additional $3-billion a year for operations and maintenance. Mr. Page suggests that by 2015/16, annual prison expenditure will have increased to $9.3-billion from the current $4.3-billion.
The Liberals have made this “wasteful” spending central to their message, pointing out that the country can ill-afford such expenditure at a time of declining crime rates. They say that the Harper government is investing in “U.S.-style mega-prisons” at a time when the Americans are retreating from such a model because it doesn’t work.
Unfortunately for Michael Ignatieff, it seems that whatever he sets his heart upon, it is unlikely to prosper.
Polls indicate two-thirds of Canadians sympathize with the Conservative position on law-and-order, and only one-third side with the Liberal line — hardly a passport to power for the Official Opposition. They also suggest Canadians think the criminal justice system is too lenient and that the public is more interested in tough justice for criminals than worrying about corrections expenditures.
The facts are with the Liberals. Crime rates have been falling for a decade — the volume of reported crimes fell 3% and the crime severity index dipped 4% in 2009, according to Statistics Canada.
But perceptions about criminal activity are not in tune with reality and opinion polls repeatedly show that the public’s fears bear no relation to actual crime rates or the potential for victimization.
Two-thirds of respondents in an Angus Reid survey last summer agreed that mandatory minimum sentences send out the message that lawmakers are getting tough on crime and almost as many concurred that long prison sentences are the most powerful way to reduce crime. Nearly half thought crime rates had increased in the past five years.
This is not to downplay the impact of violent crime. Even if the rate is in decline, there were still nearly half a million violent crimes in 2009. The attempted murder, extortion, firearms offence and criminal harassment rates actually went up. Toss in the number of crimes that go unreported — the Statistics Canada Crime Victimization study suggests only one third of criminal incidents came to the attention of police in 2004 — and it’s not difficult to see why the public is demanding a tough response from governments.
But scarce public resources should be used to deal with those who really justify the “dangerous crooks” tag thrown around with abandon by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
The “hanging’s too good for them” brigade should read an eye-opening piece from last Friday’s Washington Post, co-written by Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, and Pat Nolan, former Republican leader of the California State Assembly. They pointed out that the U.S. currently spends US$68-billion on corrections — 300% more than 25 years ago — and the prison population is growing at 13 times faster than the general population.
“Our prisons might be worth the current cost if the recidivism rate were not so high but, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, half of the prisoners released this year are expected to be back in prison within three years. If your prison policies are failing half the time, and we know there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” they concluded.
Even Mr. Toews wouldn’t accuse Texas of being soft on crime, yet the Lone Star State has instituted reforms that have strengthened its probation system, reduced its prison population and freed up money to be redirected into community treatment for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts. Since the reforms were launched in 2004, the crime rate has dropped 10% to its lowest level since 1973.
The Conservative tough on crime drive may be good politics but it’s tough on taxpayers and bad policy.
At a time when every department in government is experiencing budget cuts, Canada should not be embarking on an expensive prison-building program. Rather it should be following U.S. states like South Carolina, which is reserving costly prison spaces for violent criminals and dealing with lower level offenders in more imaginative ways
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