Justice spending rising sharply as crime rates fall, budget watchdog warns

The Globe and Mail

Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page waits to testify before the Commons finance committee on Parliament Hill, April 26, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Government spending on courts, prisons and policing has increased significantly in Canada over the past decade, squeezing provincial budgets at a time Canada’s crime rate is falling, a report by the Parliamentary Budget Office has found.

The report, released Wednesday, says overall spending on the justice system rose 23 per cent between 2002 and 2012. During the same period, Canada’s crime rate fell by exactly the same proportion.

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The data raises questions about the potential cost of the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda, which includes dozens of criminal justice bills and a number of new mandatory minimum sentences.

The report does not link the spending increases to specific laws, and criminologists say it is too early for the effects of many of the changes introduced in recent years to have much of an impact on criminal justice costs. But it confirms what criminologists have long suspected: That policing and corrections spending is up and that the provinces and territories are bearing the brunt of the costs.

It also points to a marked change in justice spending since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government came into power in 2006. Real per capita criminal justice spending rose slightly between 2002 and 2006, hovering just below $400 a year, according to the analysis. After 2006, per capita spending increased steadily in most years and was slightly less than $480 in 2012 (in 2002 dollars).

Overall spending on the criminal justice system at the federal, provincial and territorial levels was $20.3-billion in 2011-2012.

Allan Manson, a law professor at Queen’s University, said it’s too soon for spending rates to reflect changes introduced in Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill that was passed last year and included mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and sexual offences against children. But Prof. Manson said a 2007 law reducing the availability of conditional sentences, which allow certain offenders to serve their time in the community, may be connected to a spike in provincial corrections spending specifically.

Although the federal government handles laws governing criminal justice, about three-quarters of the costs of enforcement and incarceration are borne by the provinces and territories.

The Parliamentary Budget Office found the largest spending increase came at the provincial policing level, where it rose by $2.3-billion between 2002 and 2012.

Earlier this year, the Department of Public Safety held a summit on the economics of policing, when local police chiefs, criminologists and police unions discussed options for keeping costs down at a time of growing fiscal restraint.

“We’re seeing a shift in public expectations,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said at the January conference. “A decade ago, the average Canadian readily accepted, almost without question, steady increases in police budgets. Today, however, there are increasing calls to demonstrate the value of the investments that all governments make in public services, including policing.”

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday after the PBO report was released, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the government “makes no apologies for cracking down on crime.” Asked about the added cost for the provinces and territories, he said that the federal government had increased transfers to the provinces and would continue to do so.

Justin Piché, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, said only a fraction of federal criminal justice spending is targeted to crime prevention, an area that could improve public safety and reduce the number of victims. “I think there’s more that could be done there,” he said.

Wednesday’s report is the first national multiyear analysis of criminal justice spending, according to the PBO. It could also be the last to come from the office under current Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, whose mandate ends on March 25.

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