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Jeffrey Simpson

The true costs of 'truth in sentencing' Add to ...

There's a difference between being "tough on crime," as the federal Conservatives profess to be, and being stupid about crime, which is what they are.

A case in point is their Truth in Sentencing Act, which will do next to nothing about bringing down crime, the rates of which are falling year after year. The act, however, will do a great deal to increase the costs of incarceration in Canada.

The Truth in Sentencing Act is criticized by almost everyone in the judging community and among experts of criminal law. The act would limit the credit a judge can give an accused for time spent in prison while awaiting trial. The result, of course, will be more days spent in prison, with additional costs therefore added to the federal and provincial treasuries.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews insists this bill will cost only an extra $2-billion over five years, this at a time when the government is supposed to be tightening its belt. Just last Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stick-handled a compromise G20 communiqué based on the need to reduce deficits and debt.

Mr. Toews's estimate has not been backed up by any facts he's willing to publish. Indeed, his officials would not meet the Parliamentary Budget Office during its study of the act's costs, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer's recent report that blasts to smithereens the government's estimates.

Instead of $2-billion in additional costs, the PBO says the increase will be more like $5-billion, or $1-billion a year. This will come at a time when the government will be clawing back other spending, freezing the foreign aid budget, and reducing the increase in the military. It also represents the costs of just one part of the government's "tough on crime" policy.

Provinces will have to pay more, of course, because more prison time will be compiled in their institutions.

The report by Kevin Page, the PBO, runs to 120 pages, as opposed to zero pages produced by Mr. Toews. Mr. Page is quite careful in noting that many things could throw off his estimates, including how judges react to the act. So it's a carefully constructed estimate that could be off, as the PBO acknowledges, but quite likely not by that much.

Mr. Toews is from Manitoba. What will be the impact on his own province?

For starters, Manitoba's prison system is already overcrowded, with a double-bunking rate in cells of 1.45; that is, there are far more prisoners than cells.

Mr. Toews says the government will need only "some new prison cells." Mr. Page, by contrast, estimates the country will require 745 new low-security cells, 2,346 medium-security ones, 596 high-security ones, and 545 multi-security ones. The price tag: $1.8-billion. (The Manitoba government has not yet calculated what the act's additional costs will be.)

Of course, as Mr. Page acknowledges, he could be considerably in error if the government intended to double or triple up more prisoners - to much higher than the 1.45 prisoners per cell in Manitoba. Obviously, fewer construction costs will be required by putting more prisoners into cells.

More crowding would fit nicely with "tough on crime" or "let 'em rot in hell" rhetoric. It would do nothing, of course, in reducing recidivism rates, let alone rehabilitation. And it would be a recipe for more internal tensions in institutions already roiling with them.

In Manitoba, 69 per cent of the prison population is aboriginal, compared with 12 per cent of the general population. (Similarly depressing numbers exist in Saskatchewan: 81 per cent of the inmates are aboriginal, compared with 11 per cent for the general population. In Alberta, it's 35 per cent to 3 per cent and, in B.C., 21 per cent to 4 per cent.)

A decade ago, a Manitoba commission looked into the aboriginal incarceration problem. What contributed to the problem, and what should be done about it, appears to have been largely forgotten. By definition, jamming more prisoners into existing cells will disproportionately affect aboriginals.

So what we have is a federal government that keeps asserting assumptions that almost all experts think are wrong, that says its critics in the PBO are wrong without providing alternative information, that backs a policy that those who know about such matters are almost unanimous in saying will not work, and that will be spending money on it when most other programs will be cut - all in the politically popular name of being "tough on crime."

 

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