Friday, April 30, 2010
Tough on crime agenda is going to backfire.
The Conservative government's planned series of reforms to the criminal justice system could cost tens of billions of dollars based on the estimated cost of just one of them — as calculated by the parliamentary budget officer.
Last week, the Tories introduced four crime-related bills in Parliament.
One would kill the so-called faint hope clause that allows some people serving life sentences to apply for parole after 15 years (instead of the usual 25 common for first-degree murder and other life sentence convictions).
Another would revive two highly contentious parts of the Anti-terrorism Act that were subject to sunset clauses in the original legislation and are no longer in force. The changes would allow police to detain suspects without charge in terrorism investigations and could force people to testify at secret terrorism-related hearings.
A third bill would institute minimum jail terms for certain offences, including arson, counterfeiting and extortion.
Opposition parties have asked the government for an estimate of how much the reforms — with the resulting longer jail sentences, detentions without charge and other consequences — will cost.
While a total figure has yet to be tabulated, parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page says just one government initiative, the elimination of two-for-one sentencing credit for time served in pre-trial custody, will cost between $7 billion and $10 billion over the next five years.
Two-for-one credit allows criminals to get two years taken off their sentence for every one that they were detained leading up to their sentencing. It is a common judicial practice meant to provide some compensation for the conditions of pre-trial detention, during which people do not have access to the services regular prisoners do, and the delay in bringing a case to trial.
Page's complex investigation into the budget implications of the elimination of two-for-one sentencing is expected to be made public early next week.
Sources familiar with the document told The Canadian Press that the study concludes the provinces will have to pick up about three-quarters of the costs while Ottawa will cover the rest.
The report is likely to provoke a showdown between Page's office and the government. Ottawa has always maintained that much of the increased cost of longer jail terms could be absorbed by shuffling prisoners to prisons that have extra space or by more double-bunking — the practice of putting two prisoners in one cell.
Critics call that practice "chicken-caging" and say it would be a betrayal of Canada's international commitments to maintain certain standards in the correctional system.
In an interview Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged the government doesn't have a precise idea of how much the legislation will end up costing.
"We're not exactly sure how much it will cost us," Toews said. "There are some low estimates, and some that would see more spent — not more than $90 million."
Toews said that amount has been set aside over this year and next to implement the law at the federal level and expand existing facilities if need be.
The provinces should not see any increase in costs, Toews said, noting that the impetus for the legislation came mainly from provincial attorneys-general.
The change in sentencing credit, known as Bill C-25, took effect in February after Prime Minister Stephen Harper filled five vacant Senate seats with loyal Conservatives to make sure the legislation would pass.
An earlier version of the bill, introduced before Harper prorogued Parliament last December at a time when the upper chamber had a slim Liberal majority, died in the Senate.
Under the new law, judges are required to count the time spent in pre-trial as straight time served, in most cases. As a result, many criminals will likely be in prison far longer than before, putting a strain on infrastructure and tight budgets.
The practical effects of the legislation have never been thoroughly examined in public. The government has refused to release its internal analysis of the impact of the reform on prison populations and correctional budgets.
"It's always difficult to estimate what the impact is going to be," Toews said.
"Quite frankly, I'm not so sure that there will be a significant increase in our [prison] population."
According to the parliamentary budget officer's analysis, the $90 million set aside by Ottawa for the reform will not be nearly enough to cover the resulting costs.
Page devoted a third of his staff and six months to building statistical models to estimate the financial impact of the sentencing change and had outside experts assess the results.
The Bill C-25 cost estimate was requested by Liberal MP Mark Holland after The Canadian Press revealed last fall that the costs could be large and that MPs passed the legislation without the benefit of a government cost estimate.
"It's going to show that the costs involved are mind-boggling," Holland said in an interview.
The Harper government's prison-sentencing laws will cost Canadians billions of dollars, including an estimated $2 billion for one piece of legislation alone, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged Wednesday.
Toews said the government has a good idea of the overall cost of its aggressive law-and-order agenda, but does not want to make the numbers public.
"I'd rather not share my idea on that," Toews told reporters on Parliament Hill.
"It will come out in due course."
Toews commented Wednesday as a pre-emptive strike against Canada's independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, who is to release a report next week that is expected to peg the cost of one new law -- ending two-for-one sentencing credits for time already served in custody -- in the billions.
The estimate released by Toews ballooned almost overnight -- the government has previously said it set aside $89 million for the first year of the new legislation, which took effect in February.
"I can tell you one thing," Toews said. "Our government is prepared to pay the cost to keep dangerous offenders in prison."
Ending two-for-one credits is one of several Harper government law-and-order initiatives designed to put more people in prison and keep them there longer.
Toews reiterated Wednesday that the government has no immediate plans to build new prisons, but said that it will renovate existing ones and rely more on double-bunking prisoners.
Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society, said that the Conservatives are going down the same road as the U.S., where tough-sentencing initiatives have failed to reduce crime.
"In the United States, the cost of so-called crime agendas are staggeringly large and disproportionate to the amount of crime reduction they actually purchase," he said.
"It seems like the government has cast its crime agenda on the American model and there is no reason to think they are going to be any more successful at reducing crime."
Jones also questioned how Canadians will ever know if they are getting value for their money, given that crime rates have been declining since the early 1990s. Other Tory promises include mandatory jail terms for drug-related crimes, curtailing the use of conditional sentences, and ending automatic statutory release after serving two-thirds of a sentence.
Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland had asked Page to look at the costs of the government's sentencing bills, and his office intends to release a series of reports, starting with the one on two-for-one credit.
Prisoner-rights advocates have consistently estimated over the Past five years that the Conservative prison agenda would cost billions.
Jones said that he has done his own "crude" analysis of the new law ending two-for-one credits, which put the cost in the $8-to $10-billion range for that one initiative.