The man who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency under U.S. president George W. Bush says Canada should avoid the mistakes that caused incarceration rates to soar in his country.
Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who represented Arkansas in the U.S. Congress and a former prosecutor who advocated a tough approach to crime, has joined other high-profile members of his party in advocating a revision of harsh American justice policies.
"We have made some mistakes and I hope you can learn from those mistakes," Mr. Hutchinson told the Commons public safety committee on Thursday.
"I am here," he said, "because I signed on to a Right On Crime initiative, which is an initiative led by a group of conservatives in the United States who support a re-evaluation of our nation's incarceration policies."
The Conservative government in Canada has introduced a slate of justice bills - some of which have been passed into law - that will put more people in jail for longer periods of time. According to the Correctional Service of Canada, the federal prison population will increase by 30 per cent in coming years.
There are limited estimates for how much that expansion will cost but public safety is one of the few areas of spending that is anticipated to increase in the coming budget.
The debate around the crime bills is likely to feature prominently in campaign messaging, should a vote be held this spring, with Liberals arguing that the cost of many of the Conservative justice initiatives cannot be justified.
Mr. Hutchinson said he was motivated to join the Right on Crime initiative, which has been led by people such as former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, because of two principles: Fairness and the "long-time conservative principle of cost to the taxpayers."
Because of tough criminal justice policies in the United States, one in every 100 American adults is behind bars - up from one in 400 in the 1970s.
"The United States has five per cent of the world's population but 23 per cent of the world's recorded prisoners," said Mr. Hutchinson. "The incarceration costs are staggering, [running from]$18,000 to $50,000 per prisoner per year, depending upon the state and the level of security. And that cost is very challenging for many states."
The mistakes his government made were two-fold, he said.
First, it did not put enough emphasis on preparing convicts for release, which led to a high degree of recidivism. Critics say Canadian proposals to reduce parole eligibility, which will cut the amount of time convicts spend under supervision in the community, will have the same effect.
Second, said Mr. Hutchinson, the mandatory minimum sentences introduced in the United States were often unfair and put people behind bars who did not need to be there. In some cases, he said, people who were only peripherally involved in a crime were sent to jail for 10 years because of mandatory minimum sentencing.
As a result, said Mr. Hutchinson, his country had to do some "fixes" to its justice laws to give judges more discretion.
The Canadian government has also expanded the number of crimes that would require a mandatory minimum sentence, though they are, in general, more lenient than what is in place in the United States.