“Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”
— John Emerich Edward Acton (1834-1902), English historian
When crime rates are dropping, what’s a prime minister to do?
Why, introduce new “tough on crime” legislation, of course. Legislation that will see more inmates double-bunked and serving longer sentences and put more pressure on courts and correctional institutions.
How much will all this cost?
Well, it depends on who you ask, and when.
In February, when the so-called Truth in Sentencing Act came into effect, the feds downplayed the strain it would place on the system.
Among the changes is a new rule that forbids giving convicts double credit for the time they served in prison awaiting trial, which means inmates will now spend more time behind bars.
Still, Ottawa insisted this wouldn’t place any new pressure on the already overburdened prison system.
In a CBC report Feb. 23, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said “the minister of Public Safety has given assurances that space is adequate to accommodate the added demands on the system imposed by the new legislation.”
Just seven months earlier, then provincial justice minister Tom Marshall was expressing frustration at not being able to get the feds to even look at our overcrowded penitentiary, let alone commit any money to replace it.
Now, Ottawa is hell-bent on stuffing even more inmates into prisons and keeping them there longer, at a time when crime rates are waning.
As with many policy decisions Stephen Harper’s government makes, the rationale is fabricated after the fact, to justify moves they’re making for purely political reasons.
The long-gun registry. The long-form census. Getting “tough on crime.” These are all political incendiaries meant to polarize debate and grab votes.
And in this case, it’s fearmongering.
I’m all for tougher sentences for violent crimes and drunk driving, but not every sentence needs to be increased. There should be emphasis placed on rehabilitation, mental health and programs designed to prevent offenders from reoffending, rather than just “chuck ’em in the slammer and throw away the key.”
Not everyone is a hard-core, career criminal.
Writing in The Hill Times Online in March, Harris MacLeod suggested Harper’s administration was playing to Canadians who believe crime is on the rise, in spite of the facts.
“Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the government’s policies are meant to appeal to the ‘Tim Hortons crowd’ and rely on people’s ignorance about crime in Canada and the justice system,” MacLeod wrote.
“But he predicted the as-yet-unknown costs that will be incurred through increased enforcement and incarceration would ‘shock and awe’ Canadians when the numbers are eventually released.”
Provincial Justice Minister Felix Collins acknowledges those costs are looming.
As a Canadian Press article in The Telegram Oct. 7 reported, “The parliamentary budget officer predicts legislation that will see many prisoners serve additional time behind bars could cost more than $10 billion over five years, with the federal government shelling out $5 billion and provincial governments more.”
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says he’s only giving the provinces what they asked for.
“They are the ones who came to us and said, ‘We need this legislation.’ So they are our partners, in terms of not only crime-fighting agenda, but the cost,” he said.
So, let’s get this straight: crime is decreasing and our prisons are already overcrowded. The feds weren’t willing to help, but soon there will be even more inmates serving longer sentences and we’d better get our chequebooks out?
“It’s sort of a double whammy,” Collins acknowledged in a recent interview. “We all knew there would be a price tag.”
He contends violent and organized crime is on the rise, even though Statistics Canada data from July shows otherwise.
“The Crime Severity Index, a measure of the seriousness of police-reported crime, declined four per cent in 2009 …,” Stats Can reported. “Police-reported violent crime in Canada is also declining.”
This week, Don Head, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, warned Canadians to brace for a “significant and sustained increase” in the number of federal prisoners serving time.
That won’t come cheap.
According to a Canadian Press article in The Telegram Wednesday, “Head said the crime legislation will mean an extra 4,478 people in federal prisons across the country over the next three years, on top of growth in prison population that would normally be expected. He’ll have to hire thousands more staff, as well as renovate and expand existing prisons to handle the growing inmate population.”
Not to mention the extra services, court time, lawyers, judges and sheriff’s officers that will be required.
None of us will be better — or more efficiently — served by added strain on the justice system.
In an article written for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in March, Paula Mallea noted, “$30 million more per year will be needed just to incarcerate the 500 additional marijuana growers who will go to jail in British Columbia each year. A new prison will have to be built to house them at a cost of $170 million-plus.”
“Multiplied by 10 provinces and three territories — and a seemingly endless number of new mandatory minimum sentences — the financial impact will be enormous. …
“The Harper government should be compelled to divulge the real costs — both financial and in human misery — of what can only be described as an ideologically-
driven crime agenda.”
I’m all for my tax money being spent on a better prison than the one that sits crumbling down by Quidi Vidi Lake, but not if it is built on a foundation of political deceit.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.