Tough on crime but soft on logic

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Fri Mar 19 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Promises beget price tags.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has revealed very little about the cost of the crime crackdown his government has begun and plans to extend in this session of Parliament.

The Department of Public Safety has estimates of the growth of the prison population but the minister, Peter Van Loan, refuses to make them public, citing cabinet confidentiality. The government has projections of the cost of imposing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, meting out longer jail terms and beefing up police forces. But it hasn’t made them public.

Even in secrecy-obsessed Ottawa, however, some information gets out.

This month, Correctional Service Canada released its spending estimates for the coming fiscal year. They showed a 43 per cent increase in capital expenditures on penitentiaries.

In 2010-11, the government expects to spend $329.4 million on prison infrastructure. Last year’s jail-building budget was $230.8 million. To put these numbers in perspective, Correctional Service Canada spent $88.5 million on prison construction when Harper took office four years ago.

The costs can only climb. The most expensive measures in the Tory plan to “ensure the safety and security of our neighbourhoods and communities” have yet to secure parliamentary approval.

The provinces will be affected, too. They are responsible for inmates serving less than two years and offenders awaiting trial.

Van Loan contends there is no need for new jails. Ottawa can accommodate the anticipated influx of inmates in the existing 58 institutions by upgrading and expanding them.

But many in the justice system are dubious. They wonder if the government’s plan to convert its prisons into regional super-jails, as recommended by a panel chaired by former Ontario cabinet minister Rob Sampson in 2007, is a first step toward privatizing them. (As minister of correctional services in Mike Harris’s government, Sampson spearheaded the province’s short-lived experiment with private prisons and boot camps.)

All this is happening at a time when Canada’s crime rate is at a 26-year-low; when a dozen cash-strapped U.S. states are closing jails, reducing sentences and diverting drug addicts from prison; and when there’s a growing body of evidence – including a government-financed report released last month – that the anti-crime policies Harper has embraced produce little public benefit.

It is no mystery why the governing Conservatives don’t want to talk about this issue. Harper is promoting himself as a prudent economic manager. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is warning it will take four years of “difficult” belt-tightening to phase out Ottawa’s $54 billion deficit. A sharp rise in prison costs, in the middle of an austerity drive, would be awkward to explain.

What is less understandable is that neither the Liberals nor New Democrats are rigorously challenging Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda.

When the Liberals were in power, they shifted the correctional system toward rehabilitation programs, community supervision, drug treatment and restorative justice.

The New Democrats were even more inclined to divert offenders – especially young ones – from jail.

Surely both parties know it costs roughly $95,000 a year to keep an offender in jail. (Community supervision costs $23,500 a year.)

Surely they know aboriginal Canadians make up 18 per cent of federal inmates (compared with 4 per cent of the adult population) and black Canadians constitute 6 per cent of federal prisoners (compared with 2 per cent of the population.)

Surely they’ve seen the reams of studies questioning the effectiveness of crackdowns, harsh sentences that mix young offenders with hardened criminals.

But both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton are so fearful of being labelled “soft on crime” that they’ve said little, denying the public a badly needed national debate.

The warning signs are clear, yet Canada’s parliamentarians choose to ignore them.

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