Thursday, July 1, 2010
Exploding cost of Conservative crime bills, not justified
In what's become a sorry habit with the Conservative government when its poorly considered policies bump up against embarrassing truths, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is attacking the messenger who reveals that the federal Truth in Sentencing Act is far, far costlier than initially projected.
If only there was a Truth of Budgeting Act, Mr. Toews wouldn't be taking Canada blundering down the same kind of ideological path that led to the creation of the Liberal gun registry boondoggle.
If only there was some principled leadership at the provincial Corrections and Public Safety ministry, Saskatchewan wouldn't be meekly going along, with minister Yogi Hughebaert going so far as to join his federal counterpart's disingenuous attack on parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page.
Mr. Page reported that the act could double the cost of the federal prison system to $9.5 billion a year by 2015-16 from the current $4.4 billion, along with shifting the provincial share of prison costs to 56 per cent by then, from the current 49 per cent.
Mr. Toews has already backtracked from his original claim that provisions of the Truth in Sentencing Act would cost a mere $90 million over the next two years, with Correctional Services Canada officials telling him that the tab actually would be $2 billion over five years.
But as Mr. Page notes in his report, CSC officials provided his office with limited information at the onset and then refused to meet with his staff while the report was being prepared. Consequently, says the parliamentary officer, his staff had to use educated estimates to produce their report, with their figures being on the conservative low side, if anything.
As to Mr. Toews's claim that Mr. Page must be "making this up" because CSC officials had met with the budget officer, the starkly contrasting records of the governing politicians and of Mr. Page on openness and transparency in conducting their affairs suggests where the credibility rests.
Mr. Toews would have been in a better position to criticize or question the budget officer's figures had his own officials been more forthcoming about their plans and projections, and had the federal budget or departmental estimates contained any actual cost estimates for the reforms projected under the new legislation.
When the federal minister says Mr. Page is wrong about the need to build new prisons to accommodate the greater numbers of inmates who will be serving longer sentences, because cells will be added to existing facilities instead, there's little to suggest how this will be accomplished.
Meanwhile, until facilities are expanded or built, the immediate impact will be to double or triple bunk prisoners in current cells, adding to the stress and danger of an already overcrowded prison system.
In Saskatchewan, for instance, where the impact of longer sentences and elimination of double-time credit will disproportionately impact aboriginal people, the average per prison cell already is 1.3 inmates. At one of the 11 prisons, there are 1.96 inmates per cell, another has 2.02 and a third, 2.06, according to the PBO's report.
To cram in more bodies seems a recipe for trouble.
It could well be the case that the federal government and provincial governments are completely on-side with public sentiment in seeking to eliminate such things as two-for-one credits for the time spent in remand by accused persons.
Ultimately, however, assessing the value of public policy has to be done in the context of delivering results for the money spent, and with ascertaining the opportunity costs in terms of other priorities that go unfunded as a result.
It's one thing for those such as Mr. Hughebaert to say, "We'll be there" if the prison costs balloon -- the PBO report suggests between $340 million and $560 million for construction capital, plus ongoing operating costs -- but at a time when crime statistics are declining, and health, education and social programs are jostling for scarce public resources, is expanding prison capacity the best use of our money?