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

On Truth and $entencing

Conservatives' tougher rules will cost Canadians billions, Kevin Page says; Toews questions estimates
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has put a price tag on the Tory's touger sentencing law, and it's a big one.
According to a dense report released by Mr. Page this morning, the Harper government’s Truth in Sentencing Act will cost Canadians an additional $5.1-billion by 2016, or about $1-billion a year over five years.
In 2009-10, corrections cost $4.4-billion; by 2016, the report projects, they will cost about $9.5-billion.
Mr. Page says the act will cost the federal government alone about $1.8-billion in new-facility construction costs, or an average of $363-million a year over five years. Provincial construction costs are projected to be even higher.
“It's a lot of money in a period of time we're generating deficits,” Mr. Page told a news conference Tuesday.
The act limiting the credit a judge can allow for time served will add about 159 days to inmates' average sentences, Mr. Page said, bringing their average time in federal custody to 722 days from 563.
Mr. Page's report says the number of inmates in federal prisons at any one time will increase to 17,058 from 13,304. That increase will require construction of 4,189 additional federal prison cells, he says.
And Mr. Page cautions that's only the federal tab.
“If you look at average head counts, they are twice as big in the provincial system — 26,000 every year versus 13,000 at the federal level,” he said.
“The provinces and the territories carry the weight of the correctional services system in Canada so the impact is going to be enormous on the provinces and territories.”
Mr. Page said he knew incarceration was expensive but, when it came to calculating the figures and the total costs, he said “you get to big numbers in a hurry. Originally, I was shocked how big it was.”
The bill, a cornerstone of the Tories' tough-on-crime agenda, became law in February. But the government has been criticized for launching its initiatives without carefully considering the costs.
Mr. Page, whose relationship with the Harper administration has been strained at best, said the government has been less-than-forthcoming in its estimates.
“One of the major concerns we have ... [is whether] sufficient funds [have been] been set aside in the fiscal framework, have we provided the full kind of transparency we need to parliamentarians?
“On the transparency side, the answer is no. The government has not been transparent and debate has been impaired as a result of that.”
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Correctional Services Canada did co-operate and because of that he doesn't understand Mr. Page's estimates, especially figures suggesting around a dozen new prisons could be required.
“If he wasn't getting any information from Correctional Services Canada, he must be making this up,” Mr. Toews told reporters.
Mr. Toews said he is sticking by his government's estimates that the program will cost approximately $2-billion over five years, which will include adding some new prison cells.
“I've seen nothing that would change my mind in that respect,” said Mr. Toews.
“Our goal is to protect Canadians, to keep streets safe. We want to keep dangerous repeat offenders off the streets and we are prepared to pay the cost in order to do that.”
Mark Holland, the Liberal MP who asked for the costing, said he was shocked by Mr. Page's findings.
“This figure for one bill is enormous, and we have to remember this is one bill,” Mr. Holland said. “When you start thinking about all of the other [crime] bills — 13 — this can crush Canada's budget, it can destroy and cannibalize the other departments.
“How are we going to afford our health care? How are we afford education? How are we going to afford our military if we have these failed Republican policies eating away at all the other departments?” 

On Truth and $entencing
The debate over the net costs of the government’s Truth in Sentencing bill is of the kind that makes me want to throw up my hands and whine “Aw, I don’t knowwwww…”. On the one hand, the Parliamentary Budget Office has presented an estimate of the costs that makes the bill seem demented. Kevin Page’s numbers don’t factor in the benefits of any potential deterrence effect; they admittedly rely, at many points, on wild assumptions; and they were assembled with the help of a lot of the sort of “independent” expert who sees prisons as inherently barbarous and would happily blow them all up if someone presented them with a big red button that would do it instantly. But as Page himself has pointed out, this is a fight between questionable evidence and no evidence. The government hasn’t really shown any good-faith sign of a serious effort to cost out the elimination of two-for-one credit for time in remand.
Penology, by and large, isn’t treated as a fundamental political issue in this country at all. We have a series of arguments over specific proposals; we don’t have explicit contending ideologies. Yet it’s discernible, surely, that those ideologies exist.
What we have, I think, is a group of citizens who believe that penology contains no moral component whatsoever. They are, or the most logical ones are, pure utilitarians who believe that punishment has no inherent place in a justice system. If we had a pill for perfect deterrence, one that could eliminate criminal tendencies with 100% effectiveness and no ill effects or pain, they would argue that the ethical thing to do would be to give it to all convicts, even serial murderers and child rapists, and turn them loose to reintegrate with society, preferably with their identities protected. And on the other side, we have the moralists, people who do believe in punishment even where it has no necessary utilitarian or deterrent value at all. They believe that the function of a criminal justice system is to provide justice, in the schoolyard, eye-for-an-eye sense of the term. These people would want prisons, and perhaps other miserable and dire punishments, even if we had a deterrence pill.
The camps don’t challenge each other ideologically very often. It goes unstated that the overwhelming majority of those who actually administer criminal sentencing don’t really believe in punishment—this is fairly obvious, for example, from their shiny-happy trade literature. And it goes unstated that people like Vic Toews are, in a sense, beyond evidentiary arguments like Page’s. Toews is pursuing “truth in sentencing” and applying the statutes of the land, which are based on an idea of punishment favoured by much of the citizenry (and by the framers and re-framers of our Criminal Code) but by few among the bureaucracy or the polite social elite. Toews’ bill may be stupid or insane, but his basic claim to be pursing an abandoned or betrayed “truth” is serious, and it is even half-supported by some critics, who agree that two-for-one remand credit is a substantially unlawful kludge.
I suppose a law-and-order conservative, somebody who has a moralist ideology when it comes to crime and punishment, can’t very well complain about the inspired passion for austerity displayed by critics of Truth in Sentencing. But when the Globe picked up its unsigned-editorial stick and gave Toews a broadly justified hiding with it on Wednesday, I wondered about the lede:
It is unfathomable that the Canadian government would be preparing to more than double annual spending on the country’s jails at a time when almost all other government departments are being held in check, or cut. Never mind deficit reduction. Never mind health care or education. Never mind the environment. Only one thing matters: to be seen as tough on crime.
When Canadian justice went on a liberalization binge between about 1965 and 1985, nobody thought it was necessary to provide an accurate accounting of every penny of the cost of the new measures. And while we’re on the subject, Page’s report notes, in passing, that the cost per individual federal inmate in our corrections system grew by about 50% in nominal dollars between 2001 and 2009. Where were the complaints about this extravagance, the demands that we be shown where the money was going? I must say it is funny how every newspaper columnist suddenly masters the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles as soon as a Conservative government wants to “be seen as tough on crime”.
(And, frankly, I’m not sure why the “seen as” is in that sentence, since Truth in Sentencing really would lengthen criminal sentences for virtually everybody that is held in pre-trial custody and eventually convicted. Can it be argued that this is not genuine toughness on crime?)
Anti-moralist utilitarians betray their own cause when they fail to count the social costs or benefits of a change to criminal justice. Surely, according to either ideology, formal line items in the federal budget should really be marginal considerations compared to whether the measures in question lead to a safer society and less fear. For the moralists, of course, the bar is even higher: the measures must also be just in themselves. The utilitarians, for their part, have a pretty strong case that we need not consider morality or Old Testament-y justice at all.* (This is basically how the emergent field of law-and-economics approaches criminal justice.)
*But then again, you can’t be a half-utilitarian: it’s not fair to fake it because you’re concealing a specious, one-sided romantic concern for the welfare of criminals. If you are going to scream for efficient deterrence as the ultimate penological standard and insist on evidence, you must be prepared to be held to the judgment of the evidence even where it supports apparently unjust or objectionable procedures.
(In the U.S., for example, I would say a consensus is forming around the proposition that capital punishment might save a large, even double-digit number of potential murder victims for each execution; but there have, on statistical grounds, just not been enough executions since Gregg v. Georgia to warrant much confidence in the relevant interstate comparisons. In other words, the jury is still out until the sample grows. So what if the large deterrent effect is upheld over time? Will reality-based liberals in Canada circa 2060 A.D. acknowledge their forebears’ mistake and bring back the noose?)

No comments:

Post a Comment