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

The true costs of Conservatives' "tough on crime" policy -- They are ignoring reality

In their "tough on crime" zeal, the federal Conservatives are ignoring reality

There’s a difference between being “tough on crime,” as the federal Conservatives profess to be, and being stupid about crime, which is what they are.
A case in point is their Truth in Sentencing Act, which will do next to nothing about bringing down crime, the rates of which are falling year after year. The act, however, will do a great deal to increase the costs of incarceration in Canada.
The Truth in Sentencing Act is criticized by almost everyone in the judging community and among experts of criminal law. The act would limit the credit a judge can give an accused for time spent in prison while awaiting trial. The result, of course, will be more days spent in prison, with additional costs therefore added to the federal and provincial treasuries.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews insists this bill will cost only an extra $2-billion over five years, this at a time when the government is supposed to be tightening its belt. Just last Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stick-handled a compromise G20 communiqué based on the need to reduce deficits and debt.
Mr. Toews’s estimate has not been backed up by any facts he’s willing to publish. Indeed, his officials would not meet the Parliamentary Budget Office during its study of the act’s costs, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s recent report that blasts to smithereens the government’s estimates.
Instead of $2-billion in additional costs, the PBO says the increase will be more like $5-billion, or $1-billion a year. This will come at a time when the government will be clawing back other spending, freezing the foreign aid budget, and reducing the increase in the military. It also represents the costs of just one part of the government’s “tough on crime” policy.
Provinces will have to pay more, of course, because more prison time will be compiled in their institutions.
The report by Kevin Page, the PBO, runs to 120 pages, as opposed to zero pages produced by Mr. Toews. Mr. Page is quite careful in noting that many things could throw off his estimates, including how judges react to the act. So it’s a carefully constructed estimate that could be off, as the PBO acknowledges, but quite likely not by that much.
Mr. Toews is from Manitoba. What will be the impact on his own province?
For starters, Manitoba’s prison system is already overcrowded, with a double-bunking rate in cells of 1.45; that is, there are far more prisoners than cells.
Mr. Toews says the government will need only “some new prison cells.” Mr. Page, by contrast, estimates the country will require 745 new low-security cells, 2,346 medium-security ones, 596 high-security ones, and 545 multi-security ones. The price tag: $1.8-billion. (The Manitoba government has not yet calculated what the act’s additional costs will be.)
Of course, as Mr. Page acknowledges, he could be considerably in error if the government intended to double or triple up more prisoners – to much higher than the 1.45 prisoners per cell in Manitoba. Obviously, fewer construction costs will be required by putting more prisoners into cells.
More crowding would fit nicely with “tough on crime” or “let ’em rot in hell” rhetoric. It would do nothing, of course, in reducing recidivism rates, let alone rehabilitation. And it would be a recipe for more internal tensions in institutions already roiling with them.
In Manitoba, 69 per cent of the prison population is aboriginal, compared with 12 per cent of the general population. (Similarly depressing numbers exist in Saskatchewan: 81 per cent of the inmates are aboriginal, compared with 11 per cent for the general population. In Alberta, it’s 35 per cent to 3 per cent and, in B.C., 21 per cent to 4 per cent.)
A decade ago, a Manitoba commission looked into the aboriginal incarceration problem. What contributed to the problem, and what should be done about it, appears to have been largely forgotten. By definition, jamming more prisoners into existing cells will disproportionately affect aboriginals.
So what we have is a federal government that keeps asserting assumptions that almost all experts think are wrong, that says its critics in the PBO are wrong without providing alternative information, that backs a policy that those who know about such matters are almost unanimous in saying will not work, and that will be spending money on it when most other programs will be cut – all in the politically popular name of being “tough on crime.”

Great opinion piece! It's so true. The tough on crime agenda will not reduce, prevent or deter crime, and we don't need to get tough on crime because the crime rates are falling and have been for the past 25 years! Research has shown time and time again that imprisoning more people for longer periods does not reduce crime rates and can actually lead to an increase in the rates of re-offending once prisoners are released. If the government is truly interested in reducing crime, we need to spend more money on crime prevention programs, and reintegration programs/assistance for offenders and at-risk youths. That is what will impact and increase public safety, not imprisonment. Double time credit acknowledges the poor and overcrowded conditions and lack of rehabilitation programs in pre-trial detention facilities. We should not further limit judicial discretion by eliminating this practice, where offenders could no longer receive double time credit. That will increase the prison population and cause further overcrowding. Overcrowding causes tensions, stress and increased levels of violence within the prison and it does not facilitate rehabilitation or self-improvement. 

New laws to send prison spending soaring
With elimination of two-for-one credit, prison spending set to rise to $9.5B in 2015-16, more than doubling the amount spent this year, according to budget watchdog.

The Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda is also tough on taxpayers, with the cost of running prisons potentially set to more than double, says Parliament's spending watchdog.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says the Truth in Sentencing Act could raise total prison costs to $9.5-billion a year in 2015-2016 from $4.4-billion this year. It could also require the construction of as many as a dozen new prisons.
With that kind of price tag, Mr. Page isn't sure taxpayers can afford it.
“It's a lot of money in a period of time we're generating deficits,” he said Tuesday after releasing his report into the costs of the act.
The law – just one of the government's anti-crime initiatives – limits the credit a judge can allow for time served. Mr. Page said it will add about 159 days to average sentences, bringing the average time in federal custody to 722 days from 563.
But the numbers are much higher in the provincial system.
“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 estimates the provincial share of prison costs will jump to 56 per cent in 2015-16 from 49 per cent this fiscal year.
What he didn't take into account in his report was the potential benefit of the law and its goals, said Manitoba's Attorney General Andrew Swan.
“I'm an optimist. I do believe that the ending of the two-for-one credit is going to result in better outcomes,” Mr. Swan said. “In Manitoba, the average time that somebody is sentenced is rather short, and it doesn't give us a lot of time to work with people to try and get them better prepared to face society when they get out of a jail.”
Mr. Swan added the provinces did ask the federal government for the change in legislation and were prepared to pay. His province has already added some capacity to its prison system because of the new law.
“There are other things that we'd like to spend money on, but public safety is very important to Manitobans and we have to put up the money to do it,” Mr. Swan said.
A spokeswoman for Ontario's minister of community safety and correctional services said the province is keeping an eye on the price tag. “Ontarians expect safe communities and the Ontario government is more than willing to do its share,” Laura Blondeau said in an e-mail. “However, the federal government cannot expect the provinces to pick up costs for federally-led initiatives.”
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 – received royal assent last October. But the government has been criticized for launching its initiatives without carefully considering the costs.
The 2009-10 federal budget contained no mention of the new act, Mr. Page said, and it's not clear whether Corrections Service Canada has budgeted for it either.
Mr. Page said the holes in their accounting and refusal to co-operate made it difficult for him to carry out the study, so he cautioned his numbers are conservative estimates. The $1.8-billion to build new prisons, for example, could be eliminated if no new facilities are built and inmates are required to double- or triple-bunk.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said CSC 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 said.
Mr. Toews said he's sticking by his government's estimates that the program will cost about $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,” he said.

Ending double time credit is going to have a disproportionate effect on marginalized individuals in society, such as Aboriginals, non-violent offenders, and drug offenders, who shouldn't be in prisons but will now be imprisoned longer. The Conservatives are moving in the direction of American style justice systems, which is dangerous. Tough on crime has been an expensive failure in the US, but for some reason, Canada thinks it will magically increase public safety here... Doesn't make sense. Policies such as mandatory minimums, no parole, no double time credits, longer and harsher sentences has created a prison nation in which 1 out of every 100 American citizens is behind bars, costing billions and billions of dollars. Wouldn't we rather spend our taxpayers' dollars on crime prevention programs, education, substance abuse programs, employment assistance, etc. instead of warehousing offenders and decreasing their chances of rehabilitation? The USA is no safer after getting tough on crime, so why would our government implement similar expensive failed policies that make us less safe? Prison-based economies are hallmarks of a failing society and demonstrate extreme disrespect for our fellow human beings. The criminal justice system is discriminatory and only serves to break families apart, and create more hardened criminals as proven by the constant crime rate increase in the US-- where a quarter of the world's prison population is held and where the laws that form the basis of the Conservative proposals have created more criminals than there was previously! The US's example proves that increased incarceration leads to more re-offending and dangers to society when those hardened and angry inmates are released with little support and assistance. Let's work towards reducing the number of criminals and prisoners in our society instead of creating more spaces in jail to be filled. 

This law is costly nonsense in a country where crime continues to decline. We are going to spend 9 billion more to educate criminals on crime, in the schools of crime. Will we be any safer? Not a chance. Imprisoning more people will not increase public safety. Why are the Conservatives ignoring the reality of the crime situation and blatantly ignoring research by educated criminologists and experts who study crime trends and what works? Will Canada join the USA as being second in line as the prison state of the world? The US has 2.3 million in prison (1 in 100 people) and Canada has 35,000 (1 in 780), yet Canada is far safer. So which country's policies are working? We don't need to get tougher. Canada deserves criminal justice systems, policies and laws based on research of the experts and facts, not ideology! 

The US has the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, they house nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. The USA has 2.3 million in prison. Canada has 35,000. Yet Canada is far safer. Why? Overcrowded and ill-managed prison systems are places of increased violence, tensions, negative influences and environments and pro criminal attitudes/behaviours, physical abuse and hate making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behaviour we purport to fear. Prisons are the schools of crime. Toews is ignoring the experts. Double bunking and imprisoning more people does not lead to safer communities. Canada is already safer than the US. We were doing something right that the US was not doing. Yet they lock up more people. Why are we heading in the direction of a less safe society? In the face of the movement towards mass incarceration, law enforcement officials have been overwhelmed and unable to address a dangerous wave of organized, frequently violent gang activity. Non-violent drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers are swamping the court systems and prisons. Yet locking up more has done nothing to break up the power of the multi-billion dollar illegal drug trade. Nor has it brought about a reduction in the amounts of the more dangerous drugs. Canada is safer than the US. Why follow the failed US criminal justice system? Stats show that recidivism does not decrease with harsher prison sentences. The Conservatives are only getting tough on crime because it sounds appealing, and caters to the uneducated voters and appeals to the revenge mentality of the minority base. The recidivism rates in Canada are lower than they are in the USA. Why is that? Shouldn't we examine these facts before we import the USA criminal justice system? Why is Canada far safer than the USA? One would guess that the USA must be far safer than Canada. Why else would Harper promote following their so-called tough on crime policies? Because it sounds politically appealing, it sells to the uneducated portion of the public, it gets votes, but that's ALL it does! It has been a complete failure in the US. Last year in the USA there were 17,000 murders and over 11,000 using guns while we only had 600 in Canada, most not using guns or gangs. Plus, mandatory minimum sentences and the war on drugs is a waste of money and imprisons non-violent drug offenders. The experts say MMS would be a disaster and they were correct. How come the USA's so-called tough on crime doesn't reduce or prevent crimes? The experts tell us that it increases crime rates, violence and gang involvement. So why are we headed in that direction? 

We keep making more and more activities illegal, causing further backlogging of the courts and further prison overcrowding for activities which are often victimless and harmless and non-violent. It would save a lot of time and money to remove some of these laws, such as those dealing with drug possession, prostitution, gambling, drug trafficking, etc.    

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