More prisons are OK, but why is the confusing part

TheBarrieExaminer.com – news/editorial
Published: July 23, 2011.

The question really isn’t whether our Conservative government can spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars building new Canadian prisons, or expanding those which already exist.

The question remains whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper should do this with our money.

He has the mandate, so to speak, given the majority government won in last spring’s federal government. The PM’s get-tough-on- crime policy is one many Canadian voters support.

But is building more and/or bigger prisons the answer?

There are certainly several factors to consider.

One is surely that Statistics Canada says the national crime rate has dropped to its lowest level since 1973. The data used to reach this conclusion comes from police forces right across the country.

It shows there were 2.1 million crimes in Canada last year, a 5% drop from 2009.

So why, it needs asking, do we need more prisons if there is less crime and therefore less space needed to house the criminals?

The Conservatives say new crime legislation already passed and new legislation planned for the fall session of Parliament will increase Canada’s prison population.

Toughening up parole rules, eliminating the two-for-one sentencing guidelines (where convicted criminals get double credit for time served before sentencing), new laws on child sexual offenders and drug traffickers are some of the measures.

But will this put more criminals in our system than are being lost to the declining crime rate? Where are the numbers on this?

Speaking of numbers, there’s also some confusion about what the Conservative crime package will cost.

The government has indicated approximately $4 billion, but others — the Parliamentary Budget Office, for one — say it could be much more, as much as $10 billion.

Either way, it’s a steep price for what the Conservatives feel is justice.

Another question is about deterrence. Presumably, tougher laws and sentencing will deter those who would commit crimes.

Not so says a University of Toronto criminology professor, Anthony Doob. He says criminal justice policies and rates of imprisonment have no effect on crime rates.

Our falling crime rate is more likely related to social programs — keeping kids in school longer — and an aging Canadian population.

But the Conservatives can use the Stats Can numbers their way too.

A handful of crimes account for the biggest drops — fewer thefts, mischief, cars stolen and break-ins. That’s not the same as fewer assaults, weapons offences, drug trafficking charges, murders, or sexual assaults.

The latter group of criminals is more likely to serve prison time.

Law-abiding Canadians don’t want criminals doing minor time for major crimes. They’ve never wanted this and never will.

Who isn’t frustrated when someone convicted of a major crime gets two-thirds of their sentence lopped off for time already served, just because our justice system is sometimes slow and cumbersome.

But if the Conservatives want to spend $4 billion to $10 billion building new prisons and making our laws tougher — at a time when health care, education, infrastructure and other services are screaming for more funding — this government needs to make a more convincing argument.

Actually, it doesn’t need to — due to its majority in Parliament.

Harper and company should, however. The get-tough-on-crime laws and policy will be the first major legislation in this government’s term of office.

Canadians deserve better reasons why it’s needed.

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