Hot! Tough-on-crime bill toughest on taxpayers

NationalPost.com – news
Nov. 4, 2011.   Kevin Libin, National Post

Slowly but surely Canada’s provincial governments are waking up to the fact that they’re about to get stuck with the tab for the federal Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill. Quebec’s Justice Minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, is against the Tories’ plan for more and tougher penalties for crimes, including minor drug offences, in principle, but says the added fiscal burden his province must bear to implement it only adds insult to the injury.

“This bill will cost hundreds of millions over the years just to incarcerate people, not to mention tens of millions in court and legal costs,” he says. “We won’t pay them.”

Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty says he expects “that the feds will pick up that tab,” which the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates will stick the provinces with costs of between $6-billion and $10-billion over five years. Felix Collins, the Justice Minister in Newfoundland, says Ottawa should help the provinces cover the additional costs and even B.C’s Liberal government, which supports the crime laws, has said it’s worried about the impact on the provincial budget.

So far, they’re all merely looking at the immediate costs of Bill C-10: higher enforcement costs by police and the courts and the expense of housing that many more prisoners. But that’s just the start: the longerterm costs will be much higher yet. And they, too, will be borne most heavily by the provinces.

In his new book, A Plague of Prisons, Ernest Drucker, a professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Columbia University, analyzes the social and health effects of America’s mass incarceration spree of the past few decades – sparked by the anti-drug Rockefeller laws of 1970s New York, which spread nationwide like a contagion – as if it were an epidemic. It’s a scientific means of getting to the heart of why U.S. prison populations have exploded (quintupling between 1980 and 2009), the effects of the “outbreak” on society and health, and, possibly, developing some policy approaches to diminish the harm.

It’s not an entirely radical approach: The sinking of the Titanic is still widely taught to public health and medical students as a case study of how epidemiology is able to use demographic data to get beyond the visible cause of deaths (not enough lifeboats) to the more detailed story of social class structure and cultural values that determined exactly who survived and who perished: “the personal, social and environmental conditions that are the backdrop to all epidemics and most large-scale disasters – especially of the man-made variety,” Prof. Drucker writes.

Like any other epidemic – cholera, AIDS, substance addictions

– mass incarceration takes its toll on the social fabric and health and wellness of its host society. And Prof. Drucker spends a lot of time looking at what the statistics say about the effects of America’s imprisonment binge. Even if Canada never reaches the startling levels of U.S. incarceration (with less than 5% of the global population, it is home to 25% of the world’s prisoners), for every new prisoner created by the Harper government’s toughon-crime bill, and for every year the new laws add to a prisoner’s sentence, there will be impacts to not just the cost of prisons and courts, but even more lingering strains on provincial health and social program budgets.

“Incarceration systematically damages key elements of the psychological and physical health of prison inmates, causing or exacerbating conditions including addiction, mental illness and chronic infectious or metabolic diseases,” Prof. Drucker explains.

Whatever our views on the drug war or mandatory sentences, he argues that exposure to the prison system is not unlike being exposed to such “toxic” materials as asbestos or radiation, in that the impacts last long after the convict is released.

The most basic cost to provinces is, of course, simply the incapacitation of citizens to be productive members of society. When young, healthy individuals caught growing a few marijuana plants are forced to leave their jobs and spend six months in prison instead, they cost the public purse rather than contribute to it. But that effect, of turning productive people into state burdens, doesn’t always end when the sentence is up. Prisoners leave with new or aggravated mental illnesses as even non-violent offenders “become progressively more damaged as they are exposed to the criminal justice system,” says Prof. Drucker.

Poor health-care services in U.S. prisons has caused or exacerbated chronic illnesses that afflict convicts long after their release while even criminals who are relatively healthy going in are affected by “immediate and longer-term psychological implications of trauma associated with overcrowding, poor prison conditions and many severe disciplinary methods.” The rape and violence that sometimes occur in prison can leave prisoners traumatized, or physically impaired, for life.

Exposure to unsafe drugs and intravenously transmitted diseases (by dirty needles) increases substantially in prison, leaving prisoners at risk of death or illnesses, some of which, such as AIDS, will be with them their entire lives. Homicide and suicide rates are higher behind bars than on the outside. And even prisoners who make it out in relatively good shape often have difficulty finding work, or homes, or credit, making them more likely to experience chronic unemployment, underemployment or homelessness – and, of course, increasing the possibility that they’ll again return to petty crime. Studies in New York City, Prof. Drucker notes, have found that 30% of single adults in the homelessshelter system were recently released from a correctional institution. Many professions restrict anyone with a criminal record from obtaining the necessary credentials.

Then there’s the damage done to families when mom or dad gets sent up the river. They can be shattered. Prisoners can be located far away from their families, limiting contact. Couples can, and often do, break up from the strain. Children are sometimes forced into foster care, and even if they’re not, the effect on their home life and academics of having a parent locked up for years can harm their lifelong prospects for success. That’s surely one of the reasons (though obviously not the only one) why kids whose parents go to prison are five times more likely than their peers to one day end up serving time themselves. Families caught up in the correctional system are already more likely to “struggle with poverty, unemployment, low wages and unstable housing,” Prof. Drucker says. But “imprisonment exacerbates each of these and adds a host of new hurdles for prisoners and their families.”

Yes, I know: Boo-effin’-hoo. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Canadians have been warned that there’s a new sheriff in town, and if they can’t play by the Tories’ stern new rules, then it’s their own fault if they end up destroying their own families, their health, their mental stability and their economic stability. Fair enough.

But even if that’s how we want to look at things, it doesn’t mean the rest of us won’t also have to bear some of the direct and indirect costs of higher incarceration rates and longer prison terms, too. If the Prime Minister’s tough-on-crime rules end up creating more ex-cons, and more hardened ex-cons, and they end up, as they have in the United States, increasing the portion of our population with mental illnesses, poorer health, chronic unemployment and homelessness problems and family break-ups, those are costs that are going to hit the provinces harder in their health-care budgets and social support program budgets – and for years longer than the actual incarcerations.

The provinces are right to worry about the added enforcement, court and prison costs the Conservatives’ new crime bill will bring. They should be just as worried about the costs they’ll face further down the road.

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