The prison spending boom

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions/Editorials – Ottawa needs to explain why, at a time of deficit and cost controls, Canada needs to expand its budget for federal prisons by 36 per cent
Published on Tuesday, Mar. 30, 2010.  Last updated on Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010.

Ottawa needs to explain why, at a time of deficit and cost controls, Canada needs to expand its budget for federal prisons by 36 per cent between now and fiscal 2012-13. Today’s yearly corrections budget is $2.267-billion, and it will grow to $3.128-billion, a hike of $861-million. That is the price tag of its tough-on-crime agenda.

The crime agenda is in direct conflict with the government’s stated goal of bringing the deficit under control. In frugal times there is an extra onus on government to justify a big boost to any budget, let alone to the prison budget during an era when crime is dropping. While nearly every other department, including the military and the Public Health Agency of Canada, faces cuts, 5,300 new corrections employees will be hired.

Taking back the justice system from 13 years of Liberal government control, as the Conservative government has vowed to do, turns out to be an expensive proposition. That should probably come as no surprise because Canada’s neighbour to the south has spent obscene amounts on a vast and socially destructive campaign against illegal drugs, making it the most incarcerating society in the world.

California, for instance, spends 10 per cent of its budget on prisons, about the same as it spends on education. That is a crime perpetrated against taxpayers.

Although defence lawyers, academics and the Liberal opposition have thrown the all-purpose epithet “U.S.-style” at the Conservative government over its changes to the justice system, the changes here are mostly fairly moderate. But it would be useful to know which changes will produce the biggest increases in the prison population. Will it be the end to the standard judicial practice of counting pre-sentence jail time on a two-for-one basis? Removing that rather rich bonus, and allowing judges to give 1.5-times credit – with an explanation – makes sense. It may be worth the cost, which is almost $8,000 a person for each extra month of incarceration. Or is it the addition of many new mandatory minimum sentences, for which there is little evidence of a crime-reduction effect? That would probably not be worth the cost.

Ottawa has never said how many extra prisoners it expects the federal prisons to hold as a result of its changes. A cabinet confidence, the government says, bizarrely. Being tough on crime is a government centrepiece; the Conservatives should have the courage of their convictions and tell Canadians how the prison population will grow, what policies will produce the growth, and why the changes are so important they justify prison expansion at a time of restraint.

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