Provinces fear hefty costs of federal get-tough crime bills

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Politics – Ottawa must share more of the financial burden, provincial officials say
Published on Thursday, May. 20, 2010. Last updated on Friday, May. 21, 2010 .  By Gloria Galloway

A majority of provinces fear that the dozens of crime bills forming the centrepiece of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s legislative agenda will cost their taxpayers billions of dollars – and they want Ottawa’s help in paying for the anticipated influx of prisoners.

Six out of 10 provinces surveyed this week by The Globe and Mail said they are worried that new tough-on-crime laws will pose a major financial burden. The remaining four said they simply do not have enough information to determine the costs they are facing.

The federal government has not attached dollar figures to its many bills that aim to put more people behind bars for longer periods of time. But federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews revealed late last month that just one of his government’s bills is expected to cost $2-billion over five years.

Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, is expected to release a report next week that will say Mr. Toews’s cost estimate for Bill C-25 is billions of dollars too low, and that the provinces will be on the hook for 75 per cent of the money.

Federal opposition parties – and the Liberals in particular – have been reluctant to challenge the government’s justice policies out of fear that the Conservatives would brand them soft on crime. But the amount of cash required to enact the bills has emboldened opposition critics, who say they will take a hard look at the financial ramifications of getting tough with criminals – especially at a time when crime rates are falling.

In the meantime, many provinces have commissioned studies to determine how much they will have to pay for the federal initiatives – both the bills that have been enacted and the others that are still on the table.

“I am trusting and believing that the federal government will step forward and make a contribution to the overall [cost of tackling] crime. They have a responsibility, the same as we do as a province,” Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said.

Those views were echoed by Felix Collins, Newfoundland’s Minister of Justice.

“While the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador generally supports efforts by the federal government to enhance law enforcement and ensure safe and secure communities, the province also agrees with jurisdictions across the country that have indicated to the federal government it must contribute to the impending cost of this legislation,” Mr. Collins said. He added that it is “troubling” that the federal government will not indicate a cost of its legislation.

Mr. Toews has made no commitment to help the provinces pay for more prisons.

The minister said late last month that he would “rather not share” estimates of the total number of dollars that will be required to implement all of the justice bills his government has passed or is proposing. But he also revealed his $2-billion estimate of the cost of Bill C-25, which came into effect in February and ended double credit for jail time served prior to sentencing.

That bill is actually expected to be less expensive than some of the other laws the federal government has proposed, including one that would impose mandatory jail terms for serious property crimes and another that would see harsher penalties for drug offences.

Some of the bills being debated by MPs were passed in the House of Commons with Liberal support during the last session but died when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament. The Conservatives have been gradually reviving the legislation, but could face more opposition resistance this time around.

Mr. Toews disagrees that the costs of Bill C-25 will be largely borne by the provinces.

The federal government argues that the bill will cut the number of people in provincial remand centres and increase the number in federal prisons – effectively trimming provincial costs. But the provinces point out that, for every convict who spends time in federal prison, there are 10 sentenced to provincial penitentiaries. And they will be staying there longer as a result of Bill C-25.

“Whilst we are supportive of eliminating the two-for-one in the manner the federal government has proposed in legislation, more people in jails costs more money,” said British Columbia Solicitor-General Mike de Jong. “So we have already initiated those kinds of discussions, not just with the other solicitor-generals in the country, but with federal officials as well.”

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