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Whether the irony of the change will dawn on Canadians before the October election cannot yet be known, but ideas that inspire the Harper government's "tough on crime" agenda are now under assault in the country that spawned them, the United States.

Across the U.S. political spectrum, from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, the kinds of policies adopted by the Harper government are being questioned or abandoned, including by some who used to favour them.

Many U.S. news media reports have remarked on the change, which is particularly notable among Republican candidates for their party's presidential nomination. Not long ago, most Republicans were all for locking criminals up and throwing away the key, both literally and figuratively.

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No longer. Very right-wing candidates such as senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz favour limiting mandatory minimum sentences, which the Harper government has introduced for certain offences only to see them struck down in Canadian courts.

Other candidates are seeking alternatives to incarceration, preferring treatment to prison for those convicted of drug offences. The presumptive front-runner for the nomination, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, has signed on to a conservative group's call for cost-effective alternatives to prison. Former Texas Republican governor Rick Perry, another candidate, was quoted in The New York Times saying, "A big, expensive system – one that offers no hope for second chances – is not conservative policy. Conservative policy is smart on crime."

No hope, or diminished hope, for second chances is a cornerstone for the Harper government, which has made keeping offenders longer in jail a hallmark of its "tough on crime" policy.

In recent months, it tried to pass legislation eliminating the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. Another change made criminals wait for five years to reapply instead of two if their initial request for parole was denied.

Canadian courts have been paring back some Conservative initiatives, but that does not stop the Tories from dreaming up more restrictions for prisoners and harsher sentences rather than rehabilitation.

Recently, the Auditor-General of Canada showed how counter-productive this approach can be. The A-G studied the government's abolition of accelerated parole review, a form of supervised early release for non-violent first-time offenders.

These offenders now must wait longer before being released into the community under supervision. The results have been exactly the reverse of what the Conservatives predicted.

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The Conservatives claimed the change would make the community safer. Counters the Auditor-General: "Data consistently shows that low-risk offenders who serve longer portions of their sentence in the community have more positive reintegration results." The A-G also noted: "It is three times more costly to hold an offender in custody than to supervise him in the community."

On both counts – reintegration and cost – the Harper government approach is a flop. But rhetorically, the idea of keeping people in prison for as long as possible, even if the results are perverse, resonates with those who believe in it.

In the United States, "tough on crime" measures of the past four decades swelled the prison population by a factor of seven. Prisons are crowded and costly. The same trends are in the early stages in Canada. As the Auditor-General noted, crime is down, but the male prison population is up, largely because offenders are serving more of their sentences in custody.

Burgeoning costs in the United States – a country with a huge prison population – is one of the reasons Republicans are having second thoughts about policies they once endorsed. Even the super-conservative Koch brothers' foundation reckons the criminal justice system is not working, for society or offenders.

The Harper government's "tough on crime" policy always was more of a political slogan than anything. Almost every criminal law expert in Canada opposed the approach, for many of the reasons now being explored, albeit belatedly, by Republican voices in the United States.

Crime rates for almost all major offences had been declining for many years before the Harper government's election. Still, it suited the Conservative Party's purposes to deny facts and to sharpen its appeal to those who thought a crime wave was breaking over Canada.

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The government scorned the federal Justice Department experts who knew the policies would fail. Instead, the Conservatives were inspired by what they thought worked politically in the United States.

It might now be appropriate for Canadians to ask: Why have we adopted an approach even U.S. conservatives acknowledge is not working?

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