Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

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?
How can the Tories justify the cost of the Truth in Sentencing Act in light of the Parliamentary Budget Officer's report?
I'm outraged that this report forecasts a cost of about $1 billion a year for the next five years to implement this legislation. How can this be justified as a spending priority while the government is posting record deficits and the recovery of the Canadian economy is the expressed mandate?
The Conservative's ideological law-and-order agenda cannot rationally top a long laundry list of essential service provision, such as health care and education, all of which require the investment of precious taxpayer dollars.
The cost of this legislation and the outlandish cost of security and planning for the G8/G20 demonstrates a gross mismanagement of the public purse.

The minority Conservatives like to talk about "getting tough on crime." But they are reluctant to reveal the bill or initiatives that might or might not improve public safety.
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page filled in one of the blanks this week.
The government's Truth in Sentencing Act will mean more people in prisons for longer periods.
Page looked at the impact and concluded the cost to run federal and provincial jails will more than double, to $9.5 billion from $4.4 billion a year by 2015.
Provinces are responsible for inmates serving less than two years. B.C.'s jails are already overcrowded. Page estimates the provincial government will need to spend between $700 million and $1.1 billion to build new prisons. Operating costs would also rise.
Why would the government introduce a new law without understanding how much it would cost? (Public Safety Minister Vic Toews originally said the law would mean additional costs of less than $90 million over two years.)
And how much more will the Conservatives' other crime measures -- longer sentences, mandatory minimums and the rest -- cost taxpayers?
Getting tough on crime looks a lot like getting tough on taxpayers.

New estimates of the cost of the Truth in Sentencing law, passed by the Conservatives earlier this year, show the realities of the lock-'em-up approach. Is the law aimed at the right people and will it generate the right results?
Now that we have a better idea of the costs, it's much less clear.
The law, which eliminates the two-for-one credit for jail time served before trial, is a tenet of the Conservatives' tough-on-crime campaign. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said his party supports the "idea that individuals should ... serve the time they've been sentenced to."
Fair enough. Many victims have been infuriated by sentencing that has allowed criminals to serve only a few months, or even weeks, after a conviction, despite a sentence that supposedly fits the crime.
The two-for-one credit was established on the principle that pre-trial time is harder because there is no access to rehabilitation programs and guilt has not been established -- as lawyer Eddie Greenspan called it, "dead time." But supporters of the law say most of those people are eventually convicted, so that time is deserved.
There are other issues. For example, allowing two for one encourages trial delays by the defence, but eliminating it is more likely to yield fewer guilty pleas, meaning more trial time and higher costs.
When the legislation was introduced, the Conservatives said it would cost $89 million a year, which was increased to $2 billion over five years.
But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page's analysis shows that the overall costs to federal and provincial corrections could well rise to $9.5 billion from $4.4 billion by 2015, largely because more jails and more corrections employees will be needed. He notes these are guesstimates, because he says the feds didn't co-operate fully with his analysis.
The argument is that making criminals spend more time in jail makes society safer. Yes, but safer from what? The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, five times that of Canada and much higher than most other developed countries. Yet its violent crime rates are higher than Canada's, but our property crime rates are higher.
The higher U.S. violent crime rates can be attributed to the prevalence of guns. Property crimes are typically fuelled by poverty and drugs.
Eliminating the two-for-one credit feels right for Canadians, hence its political capital. But whether it actually makes Canadians safer, and whether it's worth the enormous expense, is dubious. This would be more effective if it were aimed just at violent criminals.

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