A new federal study questions the millions of dollars spent locking up many immigrants and refugee claimants, prompting the government to eye fresh options.
The Canada Border Services Agency put more than $45-million toward detaining people in 2008-09 - or over $3,000 per case, the internal evaluation report says.
As a result, the government has agreed to study lower-cost alternatives, including a Toronto bail program that's much less expensive and could be expanded across the country.
The border agency is developing a "national detentions strategy" - to be completed by September - that could involve options other than jail, the report says.
Under federal immigration law, non-citizens can be held if the border agency believes they pose a danger, they're considered a flight risk, their identity cannot be confirmed, or they are likely to be barred from Canada for security reasons or human rights violations.
The border agency operates immigration holding centres in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec that are generally reserved for detainees considered a low risk to public safety.
High-risk detainees are usually held in provincial jails, which also serve as general detention facilities in areas such as the Prairies and Atlantic Canada, where the border agency lacks holding centres.
Use of provincial jails, the most expensive of the detention options available to the border agency, has been increasing.
The evaluation cites a cost-effective alternative in the Toronto Bail Program, run by a non-profit agency on a fee-for-service basis with the border agency, providing community-based supervision of foreign nationals who would normally be put behind bars.
The daily cost of such monitoring is $12 to $16 a day, versus $112 daily for the border agency's Toronto holding centre, or $175 for a provincial facility.
"The program's strength lies in the relationship the staff develop with the individual through frequent contact and stringent reporting requirements," the evaluation says.
The cost comparisons serve as a counterpoint to recent federal moves to keep newcomers in detention "for what seems to us to be politically motivated reasons," said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees, one of the organizations consulted by the reviewers.
The report also reveals stark inconsistencies with the handling of detainees, including minors and the mentally ill, across the country.
"Detentions staff noted that they require better training on how to deal with persons with mental illness," says the report, which calls for better instruction.
There were also "notable differences" across Canada in detention practices within the first 48-hour period, when it's left up to a border officer to hold or release the individual.
"The result is that foreign nationals receive different treatment, under similar conditions, depending on where they arrive at a Canadian port of entry," the report says.
The inconsistencies have been a "long-standing concern" that calls into question basic fairness, Ms. Dench said.
In 2009-10, 9,420 people were detained for immigration reasons, the evaluation says.
The border agency removes failed refugee claimants and others considered inadmissible to Canada for reasons ranging from an expired visa to involvement in serious crime.
The evaluation notes the need to detain and remove foreign nationals will continue, pointing to steep increases in the number of refugee claims at border agency or immigration offices in Canada.
In addition, there's a backlog of 3,000 to 6,000 enforceable removal orders each year, which continues to rise in spite of the increase in the number of people who actually leave Canada each year.
Overall, the reviewers uncovered a sense of confusion about the agency's work.
"The public does not understand the CBSA detentions and removals programs," the evaluation says. "Canadian are frustrated with the removals process."
Changes to Canadian refugee law that expedite the process will put "additional pressures" on the detentions and removals program, the evaluation adds.
Border agency officers serve as escorts when the person being ushered out of Canada is considered high risk, or the country of destination or the airline requires it.
The report recommends the agency find a cheaper means of carrying out the approximately 1,400 escorted removals currently done annually at a cost of $6 million. One option is creation of a dedicated corps of border agency officers to improve the process.