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A cell block lies empty at the Don Jail in May of 2009. The Toronto prison, now closed down, was built in 1864.
A cell block lies empty at the Don Jail in May of 2009. The Toronto prison, now closed down, was built in 1864.

Burgeoning prison budgets spared the axe Add to ...

Ottawa will spend more money on federal prisons in coming years - a rare exception to government-wide restraint and a sharp contrast to efforts by cash-strapped American states to save money through lower inmate populations.

New figures released this week show the budget for Corrections Canada is projected to rise 27 per cent from the 2010-2011 fiscal year to 2012-13, when it will reach $3.1-billion. More than 4,000 new positions will be created at correctional institutions and parole offices across the country, with estimates of a 25-per-cent increase in employees during the same period.

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The spike in spending is clearly linked in a government report to the Conservatives' suite of law-and-order crime bills, which legislate longer prison sentences for a range of offences and limit the opportunities for parole. Even with this new spending, the government warns the extra burden may put staff and inmates in harm's way.

"The risk is that longer periods of time in federal custody will put additional pressures on an aging physical infrastructure and potentially increase risks to the safety and security of staff and offenders," warns a report prepared by Corrections Canada and signed by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

The Conservative push comes despite declining crime rates in Canada, but amid polls showing the popularity of tough-on-crime measures.

On an average day last year, Corrections Canada was responsible for 13,287 federally incarcerated offenders and 8,726 offenders in the community. These numbers are expected to increase, but the report does not say by how much.

In contrast, in the United States - where incarceration rates have risen by a startling 705 per cent over the last four decades - several states are now undoing measures that restrict access to parole and require longer incarceration periods, partly due to budget pressures created by the economic downturn.

As a result, the number of state prisoners in the U.S. dropped last year for the first time in nearly 40 years, according to a survey of detention data released this month by the Pew Center on the States. California has reduced the number of convicts returning to incarceration by changing parole violation rules, while Michigan has reduced its inmate population by 6,000 by waiving some measures requiring convicts to serve 100 per cent of their sentence in prison.

However, the number of federally incarcerated inmates continues to climb in the U.S.

Mr. Toews told The Globe and Mail on Friday that he was not aware of developments in the United States, but defended the planned Correctional Service Canada budget increase.

"Security is obviously an important issue for this government and we're moving on that file," he said. "I'm not familiar with the American system. I know what is necessary in order to ensure that the Canadian public is safe and that prisoners are well treated."

The government released the three-year spending projections for Corrections Canada on Thursday as part of two boxes of reports given to Parliament by all federal departments. While the release comes more than three weeks after the 2010 budget, officials say much of the work on the reports was completed before the budget's announcement that departmental spending would be frozen at 2010-11 levels as part of the government's effort to erase the deficit.

The reports to Parliament largely appear to reflect that edict, as most departments project declines in spending and staffing over the coming years.

They also hint that controversial cuts lie on the horizon. For instance, the documents project a 25-per-cent reduction of the overall budget at Environment Canada. That includes slicing the department's budget for "climate change and clean air" from $242-million in 2010-2011 to $76-million in 2012-13.

The documents caution that these reductions may not materialize, as programs set to expire may ultimately be renewed, which would then add to the department's budget.

A similar caution is included in the report from Agriculture Canada, which is projected to lose 42 per cent of its budget. The department's report projects spending on "food safety and biosecurity" will drop from $154-million in 2010-2011 to $90-million in 2012-13.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has said that part of the government's plan for balancing the books will be to not renew some programs that expire.

Follow on Twitter: @curryb

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