Opposition balks at steep price of Tory crime bills

TheGlobeandMail.com – Politics – Measures could cost $10-billion, foes say
Published on Monday, May. 17, 2010.  Last updated on Tuesday, May. 18, 2010.  Gloria Galloway, Ottawa

The Conservatives’ crime bills that died during prorogation are unlikely to get an easy ride the second time around because an emboldened opposition is slowly learning details of their multi-billion-dollar price tag.

The government is gradually restoring legislation introduced in the previous session that would impose longer sentences for some types of crimes and mandatory incarceration for others.

Opposition members – the Liberals in particular – admit they were not fully supportive of the measures when they were originally introduced but were reluctant to block them because the Conservatives would accuse them of being soft on crime.

But the slow trickle of information about the money that will be required to keep thousands more people in prison is providing them with a counter-attack.

The government says the cost of one measure alone – Bill C-25, which was passed to law this winter to stop criminals from claiming double jail-time credit for time served before sentencing – will be $2-billion.

It has been reported that a study being conducted by Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, will peg the costs of Bill C-25 at between $7-billion and $10-billion.

Mr. Page would not confirm those figures Monday, saying he does not know where the numbers came from. But, he said, he office is currently putting its numbers through additional tests because “to be honest with you, they seem very large.”

Mark Holland, the Liberal Public Safety critic who asked Mr. Page to look into the costs of Bill C-25, said it is fair to say that his party is concerned with the costs of implementing the government’s justice bills.

“We need to contextualize these choices and say, ‘If we are going to spend perhaps tens of billions of dollars on building new prisons, is that the intelligent way to go?’” said Mr. Holland.

“I think [the government] can expect that we are going to be very critical of bills that are going to cost massive amounts of money for very little return, and that we expect the government to be basing decisions on evidence as opposed to playing politics with emotions and trying to bully people into voting for things that don’t work.”

The government argues that Bill C-25 will not cost anywhere near $7-billion to $10-billion and that, as much as the public might spend, the true cost of crime is borne by victims.

“As victims have repeatedly told us, releasing criminals onto our streets early has a much higher cost than keeping criminals behind bars,” said Pamela Stephens, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews refused earlier this month to explain what that cost would be, saying: “I’d rather not share that.”

Joe Comartin, the NDP Justice critic, said Bill C-25 will be less expensive to implement than other government crime legislation, especially the drug bill that has been reintroduced in the Senate.

Among other measures, it would impose a mandatory jail sentence of six months on anyone found with five or more marijuana plants. That would dramatically increase the number of people behind bars and the costs associated with keeping them there, Mr. Comartin said.

“Canadians,” he said, “are not prepared to blow money that way.”

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