Provincial governments have collectively earmarked almost $2.9 billion to expand or replace almost two dozen overcrowded and aging jails, says a researcher, who partially attributes the building boom to new and proposed federal laws that are expected to imprison more people and keep them there longer.
Justin Piche, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, says the public should be concerned about whether governments, in times of fiscal restraint, should be spending money on more jail cells when the overall crime rate is falling.
"They are replacing old facilities with new and larger ones and a lot of that is in anticipation of the influx of new prisoners resulting from legislation passed at the federal level," said Piche, who is working on his PhD in sociology.
"In the context of fiscal restraint and massive deficits, it makes little sense to create policies ... that will require us to build new institutions because we already know prisons don't reduce crime and they cost a lot of money."
The provinces run jails that house offenders serving sentences of less than two years. The federal government is responsible for prisons, reserved for terms of two years or more.
Piche's research, compiled over the past year, shows provinces could create almost 6,000 new bunks in at least 23 new jails and another 10 facility expansions, which he said are planned or under construction in almost every province and territory.
He estimated it would cost an additional $306 million annually to operate the new and bigger facilities, based on the average annual cost of housing offenders.
Piche collected his information through access to information requests and phone or e-mail contact with each province.
He cautioned he is not attributing the entire new jail bill to new federal laws.
"Depending on the jurisdiction, aging infrastructure, rising remand populations and persistent facility overcrowding, as well as preparing for the influx of new prisoners resulting from ongoing 'tough on crime' legislation at the federal level have all contributed to the latest Canadian prison boom," he said in a written copy of a presentation delivered recently in Ottawa.
Provincial public safety ministers, at a meeting last fall, made a pitch to the Harper government for money to help pay for new and pending federal sentencing laws, which they say will put extra strain on their overcrowded jails.
Ontario estimated its bill at $19 million for one federal initiative alone - an omnibus bill, passed in 2008, that makes it more difficult to get bail and imposes mandatory incarceration for a variety of gun-related crimes.
Another federal law curtailed the use of the conditional sentences, in which offenders serve their time at home rather than in provincial jails.
Feds will revive bill
The Harper government plans to revive another bill, which died when Parliament was prorogued in December, which would further limit judges in imposing conditional sentences.
The federal government has repeatedly told the provinces they can expect to absorb any extra costs themselves, because most of them lobbied for tougher sentencing laws that would incarcerate more offenders.
The government has also said that at least one federal initiative, which came into force last week, will be a financial benefit to the provinces, because it will put more offenders in federal prisons who would otherwise spend their time in provincial jails.
The new law eliminated a judicial practice, when sentencing offenders, of giving a two-for-one credit to compensate for time already spent in custody.
The Harper government has refused to reveal the projected prison tab for its law-and-order initiatives.