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The unspoken cost of Harper's tough-on-crime bills

The unspoken cost of Harper's tough-on-crime bills

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Tories dodge tough questions about their justice agenda
It has been a centrepiece of the Conservative platform — getting "tough on crime." No matter how many experts or criminologists denounced those plans as ineffective or counter-productive, they were dismissed as "elites" who were out of touch with the Canadian voter.

But does the Conservative tough-on-crime agenda actually stand up to scrutiny? Opposition politicians don't think so. And the Harper government seems to be going out of its way to ensure that the real costs aren't revealed either.

"We're deliberately being told they're not going to tell us," says the NDP's justice critic, Joe Comartin. Even after a leak hinted that Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan had asked cabinet for a budget increase of anywhere between a quarter billion dollars to three quarters of a billion, Van Loan has since cited cabinet secrecy and refused to give up the numbers.

"We don't know for sure what numbers he put in front of them, but if he put in a figure of say, a quarter billion, it's nowhere near going to do what is going to be necessary to accommodate the number of additional prisoners we're going to have," Comartin says.

All the Commons justice committee ever gets from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson are what Comartin terms "bland assurances" that Corrections Canada will be able to handle the increase in prison population from these bills, though no opposition Parliamentarian actually believes that.


PRISONS ALREADY OVERCROWDED

After all, housing more prisoners in an already crowded penal system is expensive.

"We know that on average it costs $102,000 per year to keep a person in a federal penitentiary," says gay Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, a member of the Commons public safety committee. While that figure is slightly more for a woman in prison and slightly less for a man, it is an average figure.

"If people are in half a year longer, or a year longer, or five years longer, you multiply it by $102,000," Oliphant says. "We have no numbers on their projections on what these mandatory minimums are going to be."

Liberal Senator Joan Fraser chaired the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee, and the government was no more forthcoming with the numbers for them either.

"Mr Van Loan clearly chose not to appear before the legal and constitutional affairs committee, and I thought that was a very great pity because we had a series of bills before us that have significant implications for his department," Senator Fraser says. "In particular the remand bill and C-15, the drug bill, had clear implications for prisons, for the number of prisoners there will be in Canada."

The remand bill — which eliminated the "two-for-one credit" for time served awaiting trial — was estimated to have an 11 percent increase on prison populations, though without proper figures from Corrections Canada, there was no way to be certain.

"I think there are 27,000 prisoners in federal institutions now," Senator Fraser says. "That would be another, let's say, 3,000 prisoners to the population, and the Correctional Services investigator, Mr Sapers, has warned us that the prisons are overcrowded now.

"You dump another 3,000 in there, and what does that mean in terms of prison capacity, budgetary implications both for buildings and for ongoing staffing, and for programming?"


TORIES DODGE TOUGH QUESTIONS & SKIP COMMITTEES

In the Senate committee, Nicholson said that they would have to ask Van Loan those questions, and yet Van Loan has refused to appear.

"Don Head, who's the head of the Correctional Services said yes, I have those numbers, I know those numbers, but unfortunately they're in a document I prepared for cabinet and I'm bound by secrecy, therefore you have to get it from the cabinet," Senator Fraser says. "We're back to seeking them from Mr Van Loan, and he wouldn't appear. We had to use best guesses when we were trying to figure out what to do about that bill.

"This is very difficult — I don't think it's a good way to make public policy, to pass legislation, to spend public money."

And this was only for one bill. Comartin says that corrections-related NGOs have told him that if the government's raft of crime bills were passed and enforced, we could see an increase in prison populations between one third and 50 percent.

"When you look at those kinds of numbers, the estimate is that we would have to build at least two more large — I'm talking super-prisons, and the capital price tag for that is running at a quarter billion for each one of them," Comartin says. "We're talking a half billion and maybe a third one if we get up to the 50 percent additional number of prisoners. That's not talking anything other than capital expenditures. We've got to bring our existing prisons up to a more humane standard. But once you've got that, then you've got the operational cost, and the cost is running at another half-billion a year."


SHIFT FUNDING PRIORITIES, SAY OPPOSITION MPS

What has also become apparent is the state of our prisons currently and the lack of funding for programming and staffing — something which can be even more important than simply housing inmates.

The Commons public safety committee was undertaking a study on mental health and addictions and the capacity in the prison system to deal with them. A recent report by the Correctional Services investigator, Howard Sapers, concluded that up to 80 percent of the prison population suffers from either addictions or mental health issues.

"It's a huge problem, and part of that has to do with personnel," says Oliphant. "They simply don't have the capacity of professionals — psychiatrists, psychologists, addictions counsellors, social workers and occupational therapists — to actually do the kind of work that needs to be done."

NDP public safety critic Don Davies has an example of the inadequate training being given to guards in current facilities, citing one facility as an example.

"They had no nursing care or medical care after 7pm," Davies says. "If you went into a cell, and you found that someone had tried to hang themselves with a ligature, what a guard would do is have to go into the cell, cut the ligature off, stanch the bleeding and apply primary medical care, start to counsel the person, and try to get the person settled down. Now think of the skill set, the training and the difficulty that you're bringing to bear on them as well as security, so this gives you a bit of a flavour of what we saw in prisons.

"We deliver this core programming, which is geared to the median. I guess it's better than nothing, but it's simply not addressing the needs of most of the prisoners."

Davies is also critical of the way that Corrections budgets are being allocated.

"I remember they allocated $500 million — this was about a year ago over the next four years — for prisons. All of the money was targeted at infrastructure and interdiction for drugs," Davies says. "Did you know that not a penny was directed at treatment, or at harm-reduction either, which they're ideologically opposed to? But certainly treatment is something that everybody agrees they didn't put any money towards that.

"They're abolishing the prison farm system. You won't find a single person that works in Corrections, from a warden, to a corrections officer, to any of the professional staff, to the prisoners — not one will tell you that's a good idea. And yet they're going ahead with that. So we need more vocational programming. We need more progressive and creative programming in prisons. We need more therapeutic approaches — not less."


NOW THAT PARLIAMENT HAS BEEN PROROGUED, WHAT'S NEXT?

While prorogation has killed the crime bills currently on the Order Paper, they are likely to be resurrected shortly after Parliament resumes, some of them in the same stage as they were at during dissolution, though that would require the consent of other parties.

C-15, the bill on mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes, is in an unusual position because it died in the Senate after it had been amended and sent back to the Commons. It would need to be re-introduced back to either the Commons or Senate without the amendments, and given that the Conservatives will have a plurality in the Senate and a majority on many of the committees, the amendments may not make it through a second time.

As for getting accurate numbers, Oliphant plans to put questions on the Order Paper once Parliament resumes in order to get the civil service projections on numbers and costs. He also plans to revisit the public safety committee's study with an eye to finishing it.

"The committee gets reconstituted, and we have to again negotiate what study we're going to do, but my assumption is that we'll still form a majority on that committee, and we'll push ahead with that study," Oliphant says. "I hope that report will be out in late April or early May."

But the underlying problem of a government that refuses to be accountable to Parliament with respect to its true costs and projections for its justice agenda remains.

Public Safety Canada did not respond to Xtra's requests for information.

>> Dale Smith is Xtra's federal politics reporter. He blogs every weekday at Hill Queeries.

Comments

look it up for yourself Jeff
Jeff do your own research if you don't believe me, a good place to start is the Senate hearings on the drug bill in particular, also look up pretty much any expert on crime and crime reduction you wish. There's a little thing called justice and the concept of the punishment fitting the crime that's very important to me and many others, plus any bill that would have the unintended effect of increasing crime is worse than worthless. As well I was comparing the rate of crime between the US and Canada not the total numbers. I'm assuming you know the difference, or maybe not, you do think the Cons are doing a great job after all. I'm just stating my opinion that you are an idiot for blindly supporting "tough on crime" politics. I'm not surprised you don't share that opinion and don't care to try and convince you.
Oh dear!
Evidently Mr. Taylor does not understand the concept of "per capita". Mr. Rich suggests crime in the United States is higher than in Canada "per capita". Which it is. Furthermore, Mr. Taylor should read Charles Dicken's it might help him to gain an understanding of why Mr. Rich is making the point he does.
How long Rich ?
Dear Rich, where do I start ?? First, you can NEVER compare US & Canadian rates of crime. Why's that you ask ? because the population of the Untied States is basically 300 million. The population of Canada is basically 32 million. Of course with that HUGE difference the crime rate in the LARGER country will be far higher than that in the smaller one. That's just basic mathematics my friend. Do you really think that once tougher drug laws are put into place the Govt will ignore and not arrest the 'top levels' in the drug world ? Of course not. You know something else Rich ? every recovering addict that I've personally ever known, NEVER sides with criminals. They also NEVER say that drug and alcohol laws should not be toughened - not one of them. You see Rich, they work hard on recovering from their various addictions and want to stay clean and sober. They feel that anything that helps in any way to prevent people from having the life they had before they beat their addictions, is a good first step. They DON'T think loosening drug & alcohol laws makes any sense. Rich, maybe it's time some Canadians stopped looking for tax payers and various levels of Govt to solve all their personal problems. Maybe it's time that individuals started taking responsibility for their own lives. Maybe some of us that have had people we've known murdered or property we've owned stolen or destroyed want some protection from criminals and not have them walking around on our streets after they've served a 'soft, way too short' sentence for crimes against our society. Tell us Rich, how long should a person serve in jail for murdering someone ? Tell us Rich, how long should a drug dealer serve in jail for selling drugs to a teenager ? Tell us Rich, how long should someone serve in jail for raping someone ? Tell us Rich. We'd like to know exactly where you stand on crime, not just some general, rehearsed sentences on your views of crime. Tell us specifics Rich. How long should th
crime prevention best solution
It would be much better if the Cons focused way more on crime prevention than solely on punishment. However crime prevention involves spending money on social programs and they're against that ideologically in spite of all the rational fact based evidence that shows it works to reduce the crime rate, Quebec's recent efforts aimed at youth crime prevention have paid off very well for them since they now have the lowest youth crime rate in Canada. Punishment is important but is doesn't bring back murdered people and it doesn't undo the damage done by other violent crimes and sexual assaults. Much better to save lives and money by preventing crime in the first place rather than spending extra money on new prisons to punish criminals after the damage has been done. But of course due to the extremely ideological blindness of the Harper Cons we will likely never see any effective crime prevention in Canada, these are the same people after all who slashed the social programs for youth when they were in power in Ontario years which led to a dramatic increase in youth violence a few years later, I'm not aware of any study that proves the connection between the loss of programs for youth and the rise in youth violence when those programs were no longer available but its pretty clear there's a direct connection, youth with nothing constructive and healthy to do are way more likely to fall into gangs and criminal behaviour. With the coming budget cut backs we will likely see even more reductions to other social programs on the national level and a corresponding increase in violence following them. The Cons are danger to our society's health and safety.
simple minded belief
Jeff for someone who can't even be bothered to read the article I don't see why you feel able to comment on it, except of course to parrot the usual Con talking points about the left being soft on crime. Justice legislation should be based on rational fact based evidence of what works best to protect society from criminal behaviour and not on mere political games to get votes from a public who largely doesn't understand the complex nature of crime, punishment and rehabilitation and who don't get all the details of any particular court case beyond a few headlines and their knee jerk reactions to them. Take Harper's proposal for adding many more mandatory minimum sentences for a much wider variety of non-violent crimes. The US had used the same sort of policies for many years now, if they worked then the US would be among one of the safest countries in the world but instead its crime rate, especially its violent crime rate is many magnitudes higher than in Canada, and the US has more of its citizens per capita locked up in prison than any other country in the world, more than China and Iran, yet their violent crime is massively larger than ours. Our crime rate has been dropping steadily for the last 30 years so it seems pretty clear that what we have been doing has been working very well. The proposed drug bill will be of great benefit to organized criminals greatly increasing their profits, it targets people who grow their own pot for their own use by giving them mandatory 5 month prison sentences. Very few people will be willing to take such a risk and will resort to buying pot from organized crime groups. Whatever happened to the idea that the punishment should fit the crime? Justice is not served by a one size fits all approach. the Cons are ignoring all the studies and expert advice on lowering the crime rate and effectively punishing criminals for their won knee jerk reactions designed to gain votes instead of serve justice.
Double Standard
I don't even have the stomach to read this article completely. Scanning it, it's sadly obvious that it's written with the usual 'liberal' view. In the past, I have asked friends that vote NDP & Liberal (in federal elections) how they'd feel if someone they love was murdered. Everyone of them answers that they'd be horrified and crushed. They also say that they would want to see justice for the crime. Then I point out to them that the NDP & Liberal parties view the Conservatives are being too hard on criminals. As usual, these people want their cake and they want to eat it too. They want criminals punished, yet they won't vote for the party that wants to punish the criminals.
Don't Imprison - Re-Educate
Locking up people in jail only creates more hardened criminals. Jails are almost a college for criminals. Inmates go in, and learn from other inmates the fine art of criminal behaviour. Better take the money we already spend on corrections and build re-education facilities and psychiatric hospitals. There, inmates would be forced to attend school 10 hours a day to learn to be good citizens and to get a trade so when they come out they can earn a living honestly. Inmates with mental health issues (and there are a lot of them) would be hospitalized on a long-term basis, until they finish their sentence and they are medically treated. Finally, we should fight crime on the streets with better policing and more social services. That would be a better way for Harper to spend our money. 'Nuff said.
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