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A prisoner is shown in the Toronto Jail on Feb. 24, 2011.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

Tough-on-crime policies make good Conservative politics. Spending money does not.

Mix in a recession, and a round of deficit cutting, and it's easy to see why the federal prison system is on a treadmill where it's not building new cells fast enough to house the growing population inmates. That's essentially what Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported Tuesday.

The government is building 2,700 cells to house new inmates. But soon after they are all completed next year, at a cost of $751-million, the prisons will be overcrowded again.

The squeeze in the prison system isn't really the result of mismanagement by Correctional Services Canada, although there has been some of that. It's the result of conflicting decisions imposed upon it by the government.

The Conservative government wants to be seen sending more criminals to jail for longer periods, because a lot of voters like it. But doesn't want to be seen paying the full price, because voters don't like their money going to house them. That's why it has put off the real choice. After spending to build new cells, it will only be a couple of years before it has to spend again – or open the gates of the jails a little wider to let more inmates out.

It's not that no one saw the growth in prison populations coming. In fact, back in 2009, Correctional Services Canada thought the number of inmates was going to grow much faster, because of Conservative policies like mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and slower parole. The government planned to build five big new prisons, as well as build 2,700 new cells in existing ones.

Correctional Services Canada eventually realized that its inmate population wasn't growing quite as fast as it expected. At the same time, the government deficit cutting hit across the board, to defence spending, foreign aid, the civil service, and so on. Politically, it wasn't the best time to be seen to be spending a lot of money on homes for convicts.

The government decided to close three institutions, though they were considered relatively serviceable, as part of budget-cutting plans, in 2012. Then the government decided to cancel the controversial plan to build new prisons.

But even while the government was pointing to the fact it was saving money by shutting down new prisons, it was expanding other prisons in a less visible way, building 2,700 new cells.

That was to alleviate the overcrowding that already exists. The federal prison population grew from 14,200 in 2009 to 15,225 in March, 2012, according to the Auditor-General. CSC was double-bunking about 26 per cent of its inmates in Ontario and the Prairies, even though that's supposed to be a temporary fix, and it has built 2,000 more double bunks.

But the problem is that while once 2,700 new cells will be completed next year, it will only be two or three years before the prisons are overcrowded again. They will need more cells again.

Why? It's not that new inmates are flowing in more quickly, but they're staying in jail longer. And that's not so much because of longer sentences, but because of less parole. The AG's report identifies a greater rate of refusal of parole. Some prison experts say a big factor is the removal of " accelerated" paper-reviews for first-time, low-risk offenders who have served one-sixth of their sentence, which has created a backlog for hearings.

Those policies have been promoted, repeatedly, by the Conservative government. They have told voters they will make sentences longer, and require inmates to serve more of their sentence. They view it as a winning issue that moves key voters, like suburban soccer moms and seniors.

What they haven't promoted is the cost. It was more than $700-million for this round of expansion, and as soon as it's spent, it's time to expand, and spend, again. The government has never drawn together its crime measures, analyzed the impact, and revealed the ongoing cost, in dollars and cents.

That cost will force a choice, soon after the 2015 election. The federal government, no matter who is in power, will be forced to decide between spending hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, to build more cells – or whether it will loosen those parole rules to let some of the inmates out. It's a choice that's been avoided so far, because neither is good politics for the government.