Canadians don't trust the courts to get it right on crime. Many would like a tougher approach. But they also don't see crime or justice as a spending priority. Perhaps this explains the Conservative government's silence on the costs of their law-and-order agenda.
Since 1994, the Focus Canada poll done by Environics has measured Canadian attitudes toward government spending. In 2010, justice was seen as the second last of 21 priorities, a sharp drop from 15th in 2008. Only 24 per cent said more money should be spent on the justice system. That was the lowest figure recorded since 1994, when just 20 per cent wanted more spent. Getting tough is one thing, paying for it another.
Before he became prime minister, Stephen Harper promised to "take back" the courts and justice system from the Liberal Party. The many crime bills either before Parliament or already passed into law go some distance toward that goal. They would result, in sum, in more reliance on prison, longer sentences and shorter parole.
Bring it on, many seem to feel. Few Canadians have good things to say about the criminal courts of their province - not even one in five people expressed confidence in them, an Angus Reid poll found last June. That's less than half the number who said they had "not much" or "no confidence at all" - two in five. By comparison, 34 per cent are confident in their local police. The figures suggest people are open to government taking on the perceived leniency of judges.
Many Canadians believe in tough sentencing. Sixty-five per cent said in an Angus Reid poll last January that lawmakers who set mandatory minimum sentences (as the government is trying to do) are sending a tough message to criminals. Sixty-two per cent in Canada believe long prison sentences are the most powerful way to reduce crime.
Conversely, it is possible to paint a picture of a liberal Canada. Canadians are more likely to stress prevention (58 per cent) than enforcement (36 per cent), according to Focus Canada.
But even if the public would like tougher sentences, there appears to be no wish to pay a tab in the billions each year (in combined federal and provincial costs). The federal corrections budget alone is set to rise by $861-million, or 36 per cent, by 2012-13 over 2009-10. The provincial costs will probably rise by at least that much, because of federal sentencing changes.
Ottawa's position is either that Canadians want a get-tough approach at any cost, or that they aren't entitled to know what the cost will be. The government should reveal all the costs of the changes, and allow for a reasoned debate on where this country's real spending needs lie.