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 truth in sentencing is that it costs a fortune!

A new prison-sentencing law will cost the federal government an extra $5-billion over five years and the provincial governments even more, Canada's spending watchdog estimated yesterday in a report that predicts 13 new prisons will be needed to incarcerate 4,000 new offenders.
Kevin Page cautioned that his cost analysis is not an exact science, but rather a "high-level estimation" because he says he was stonewalled by the government in his efforts to secure the needed data.
"I knew incarceration was expensive, but when we actually did the calculation ... you get big numbers in a hurry," said Mr. Page, the parliamentary budget officer.
Mr. Page, at the request of the Opposition Liberals, analyzed the cost of one piece of crime-and-punishment legislation, which came into force in February.
The Truth in Sentencing Act, which ends a practice of giving an offender credit on a two-for one-basis for time served in pre-trial custody, will more than double annual correction costs to $9.5-billion by the fiscal year 2015-16, the report says.
An additional 4,000 inmates will be in the federal prison system at any one time, with construction costs for new facilities estimated at $10-billion.
As well, there will be a sharp spike in provincial costs, more than doubling in the next five years largely as a result of the need to build jails to accommodate
an increase in short-term inmates, says the report.
The elimination of the standard two-for-one credit for pre-trial custody was a key plank of the Conservatives' law and order platform.
The government initially estimated the additional cost as $89-million over one year. This spring that was bumped up to $2-billion over five years.
The data released by Mr. Page suggest the additional cost is much higher. But the actual amount of extra time incarcerated due to the reduction in pre-trial credit may be less than expected.
A federal inmate would be held in prison for an additional 159 days on average, or about five months, as a result of the changes, the report says. That is because the inmates in the federal system are on average, serving terms that make them eligible for parole 30 months after they have been sentenced in addition to any pre-trial custody.
People serving terms of less than two years in a provincial jail would spend an additional 36 days or about five weeks in custody. According to Statistics Canada, about half of the inmates in provincial jails are serving sentences of one month or less, usually for relatively minor offences.
Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland noted that the report only covers one bill. The Conservative crime bills will be "crippling" for the taxpayer, he said.
There were contrasting responses to the findings that the legislation will significantly increase provincial costs.
"Our government fully recognizes that Ontarians want safe communities and that there is a cost attached to ensuring this occurs," said Laura Blondeau, a spokeswoman for Rick Bartolucci, Ontario Public Safety Minister. "Ontario will continue to do its part, but full expects measures initiated by the federal government will be accompanied by the resources needed for implementation," she said.

All figures as of the fiscal year 2015-16. Source: Parliamentary Budget Officer.
46 Percentage increase in annual operational costs at federal prisons.
3,754 Number of additional inmates in federal institutions on an average day.
13 New federal prisons that will need to be constructed to accommodate additional inmates.
159 Additional days in custody for the average inmate in a federal prison as a result of the end of two-for-one pre-trial credit.

We should not be further limiting judicial discretion, when it comes to granting double time credit. This elimination will cause further prison overcrowding and costs far too much money. Imprisoning more people for longer periods does not reduce or prevent crime. We need to address the root causes and contributing factors through more social programming. Double time credit acknowledged the harsh and crowded conditions in pre-trial detention facilities and the lack of rehabilitation and recreational programming or activities. 

Kevin Page, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, calculates that the Truth in Sentencing Act — which ends the practice of giving  offenders credit for twice the actual time served  in pre-trial custody -- will more than double annual corrections costs to $9.5-billion in five years. Everyone wants to be tough on crime, but is it enough to toss people in the slammer and keep building more prisons, no matter what the cost?  Or do we contiunue the current questionable practice of sentencing people to jail, then letting them out long before they actually serve their sentence?
Today’s panelists, Barbara Kay in Montreal, Scott Stinson in Toronto and Kevin Libin in Calgary.
Barbara Kay: Many people seem to think that there is no correlation behind honest sentencing and crime rates. In 1997 the New York Times had a headline, “Crime keeps on falling, but prisons keep on filling.” Hello? In 1991 a NYT reporter said that “crimes of violence have not decreased at all” in the wake of rising imprisonment and he was later proved wrong by statistics. Many observers point to the fact that criminals revert to crime when they are released, as if that were a reason not to imprison them in the first place. In Britain the total cost of the prison system was analyzed at £1.9 billion and financial cost of crimes committed by criminals per year at £60 billion. Britain is a wobble story in itself on crime and a cautionary tale.
Scott Stinson: I agree that it’s a curious strategy to protest simply the cost of anti-crime bills. Increased sentencing is bound to have some sort of cost effect, even if in this case the PBO acknowledged it was largely doing some guesswork. Ironically, the government response to criticism about the projected cost of the Truth in Sentencing Act could be that not all criminals will necessarily have longer sentences because of the elimination of “2-for-1” pre-trial credit. Judges consider the total length of a sentence when imposing it, so they may reduce the post-trial incarceration to make up for the lack of a credit. Not that the government would really want to admit that might happen.
Kevin Libin: God bless this fascinating country where it’s the price tag of prosecutorial zeal we worry about, rather than the implications for, oh … civil liberties. Thank goodness prisons are so expensive; the price tag may prove the best curb against a government keen on exploiting a moral panic over crime while tossing aside traditional checks on the system created out of the acknowledgement that the justice system is flawed and has shown without fail a natural tendency toward abuse of individual rights.
I’ve said before that where anyone stands on this truth-in-sentencing business depends a lot on which you’re more worried about: uncontrolled criminals or uncontrolled prosecutors. For me, it’s the latter. Two-for-one sentencing for pre-trial custody has long been a pretty ingenious way of balancing the inherent injustice of imprisoning someone simply accused of committing a crime — and therefore innocent in the eyes of the law — and the need to lock up potentially dangerous people. When a Canadian’s arrested for a crime, it should be our collective wish to see him or her tried as quickly as possible. A justice system that can keep someone in a remand centre (and they tend to be far more punitive than any federal prison) for unnecessarily extensive periods of time without any risk to it is going to end up abusing that power soon enough. Prosecutors should have to keep an eye on that ticking 2-for-1 clock, knowing that the longer they drag out the pre-trial phase, the lighter the sentence may end up being: it’s a great way to guarantee speedy justice. If we’re taking too long to get people to trial, and we think they end up getting too much credit for time served, then the answer is getting people to trial faster. If we’re going to spend billions, let’s spend it on that.
Kay: Me, I’m on the uncontrolled crime side when it comes to worrying. But I agree that justice delayed is justice denied, and that the 2-for-1 checks and balance system precludes the potential abuse Kevin cites. Ideally a criminal would be charged and tried in a timely fashion. But once convicted, let him serve the time imposed by law, not half or less, as is presently the case. Which brings us back to the whole cultural shift in attitudes to criminality per se. Until the 1960s crime was perpetuated by, you know, “criminals.” Then it was decided that “root causes” — poverty, racism, obstacles to opportunity and childhood trauma — were the real issues. Politically correct observers didn’t like the racially unbalanced prison stats, but instead of taking a deep breath and inquiring into the cultural roots of crime, it was simply decided that incarceration wasn’t the answer, and the criminals somehow became the victims. Higher incarceration rates became disengaged from crime reduction amongst liberal thinkers. This refusal to trust the evidence, especially in the area of gun control, is more advanced in Britain, where only 7% of convicted criminals go to prison. Strangely, in spite of vigorous attacks on the “root causes,” UK crime rates are soaring, and have surpassed those in the U.S.
Stinson: No doubt the punishment should fit the crime. Obviously a large majority of law-abiding Canadians agrees with that tenet, and the Conservatives know it, which is why they make such hay out of being TOUGH ON CRIME. But it’s also true that many of the Tory justice bills are geared more to winning votes than improving the justice system. Consider the “Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act.” (Subtle name, that.) That one would allow a judge to impose consecutive sentences for someone convicted of more than one murder. Does this happen a lot? And is it necessary? The system already has a way to keep the worst criminals behind bars, by having them declared dangerous offenders. This is by no means the case with all such bills – the elimination of the “faint hope” clause is one where the government can rightly say it is closing a loophole – but in many cases the bill sure sounds tough on crime but will have little practical effect. Introducing a new offence called Motor Vehicle Theft essentially duplicates punishment provisions for Theft Over $5,000, for example.
Libin: Okay, so the punishment should fit the crime. So, what’s that really mean, anyway? Seems we abandoned the literal interpretation of it back when we scrapped the death penalty: there’s no way that life in prison can in any way be said to properly ‘fit’ murdering a bunch of children, for example. Left now to interpretation, different Canadians are going to interpret the statement differently. Yeah, we can all agree that the punishment should fit the crime, but who’s version of ‘fit’ are we going to use? Vic Toews? The majority of Canadians? Should we now leave the administration of fair justice to a popular vote?
Because, really, that’s what the Tories are up to here. It’s smart politics: scaring voters into believing only you can save them from rampant crime. Willie Horton was a defining issue for Bush One’s election campaign and the Tories are doing a heckuva job as branding themselves as the party that looks out for all us cowering, victimized citizens.  Except, in 2010 Canada, unlike 1988 America, there is no rampant crime. Crime rates are down 20% over a decade; the “severity index” for crime, according to Stats Can, is down 25%. We’re quickly approaching the very expensive point of diminishing returns here. As Scott mentions, the justice system does a pretty able job of dealing with the truly bad guys. The folks that are going to get hit hardest by these “truth in sentencing” measures and tougher prisons will be the petty criminals; the guy with a dimebag of pot. It benefits no one (except politicians) to lock these types away for years, and spend billions to buy more prison cells to do it.
Kay: You raise many interesting points for discussion, Kevin. If really bad crime is going down and you say the bad guys are being dealt with, then let’s assume there is a correlation between being tough on bad crime and its subsequent reduction.
But then there’s all the other “crime” the punishment doesn’t fit, such as jail for a few grams of pot, as previously mentioned, and debtors’ prison for non-payment of child support, which in Ontario went in the last few years from a possible 90-day sentence (previously 30, then 60, then 90) to six months. Punishing “deadbeat dads” is very popular amongst many media commentators, although no woman in Canada has ever gone to jail for refusing court-ordered access to the father. In both cases it’s crazy. Because the punishment that “fits” is the one that produces socially positive results. Debtors’ prison helps nobody and ruins many men’s lives, while denying access to their fathers ruins many children’s lives and there is no deterrence to the offenders, making a mockery of the words “court-ordered.”
When was the last time a bipartisan task force on crime and prevention and enforcement really went to town on fresh categorizations of crime, looking at what’s useful, what’s not, what’s under-utilized, like national databases that actually work, for example, and what’s over-utilized, like incarceration for petty stuff, what kind of prevention works with at-risk teenage groups, and what doesn’t. A huge amount of crime is drug-related. If half the prisons today were turned into forced rehab, which by the way has a very high success rate when done properly, that might make a dent. Couldn’t more use be made of electronic monitoring for people who aren’t a danger to others?
Crime will always be with us, so we might as well tackle it as we do illness, another permanent fact of life. If the kind of energy and resources that goes into curing cancer were poured into crime prevention and appropriate enforcement, we’d find partial real solutions instead of business as usual: political parties wasting taxpayers’ money pandering to people’s fears and prejudices for votes.
Stinson: Kevin has called me out on my use of a hoary cliché, but I shall soldier on. Barbara’s point about fresh ideas is an interesting one, but I don’t think the present government is interested in such subtleties. It has tended to whack proponents of house arrest and electronic monitoring with the SOFT ON CRIME stick, which allows the government to stick to the good v. evil line, where all criminals deserve to be treated harshly. You may recall that no less an inmate than Conrad Black has argued in the Post that such thinking is outdated.

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