Ottawa’s crime agenda could cost the provinces billions of dollars over the next few years, and those expensive chickens are now coming home to roost. Quebec and Ontario say they will refuse to pay. And who can blame them?
The tough-on-crime omnibus bill now before Parliament is hardly a sterling example of co-operative federalism. It is heavy-handed federal policy-making, which (along with some previous crime bills) will cost the provinces dearly – a subject of a kind that once exercised the Reform Party, a precursor of today’s ruling Conservatives. The provinces have had limited say, through discussions among attorneys-general and their deputies, in Ottawa’s plans, unlike, say, in health care, where major reforms and extra cash are typically put on the table at the same time.
The Conservative government has every right to do what it is doing, of course; criminal law is exclusively within federal jurisdiction. But the way it has exercised that right is wrong. This is a time (in case anyone hasn’t noticed) of economic uncertainty and government deficits. How should Quebec and Ontario pay for extra prison costs – by cutting education, health care, daycare? By raising taxes?
The grab bag of crime bills has some merit, but the overall thrust, that jail is overwhelmingly the answer to crime, is hard to accept; Canada will become a more incarcerating society, even as the United States looks to less costly approaches. There is a nonsensical mandatory minimum penalty of six months in jail for anyone who grows as few as five marijuana plants. There are some useful changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act that liberal Quebec says it abhors; these will probably not break the provincial bank. The biggest expected cost is from a law that predates the current omnibus bill, and removes the double credit for time served before trial – worthwhile in principle, but not at any cost.
Ottawa’s $3-billion corrections budget for this fiscal year is $514-million more than last year’s, and Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says the extra provincial costs will be larger than the extra federal ones. (Provincial detention is for people sentenced to two years or less, and those awaiting trial.)
The provinces are in an impossible position, and the Conservatives are promising more crime bills. It would be prudent, or at least fair, to consult at a senior level – say, at a conference of first ministers – before trying to stick the provinces with another enormous price tag. And until then, to pick up the bill.