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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 8, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Harper Tories split with friends abroad on crime policy Add to ...

Just how conservative are Conservative crime measures, really? In Britain, the Conservative government of David Cameron is working assiduously to make Britain's prison system less costly. The Cameron Conservatives are grappling with the expensive consequences of 21 criminal justice acts introduced by their Labour predecessors, which "increased the cost of prisons by two-thirds and sent the prison population soaring," according to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. "My goal is a conservative one: to find effective ways of punishing criminals while reducing public spending," Mr. Clarke says. In Canada, the situation appears to be reversed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is emulating Labour.

In his New Year's message, Mr. Harper named 13 things his government is doing for families, seven of which involved crime bills. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated that just one of the government's crime laws, the Truth in Sentencing Act, which takes away the two-for-one credit for jail time served before sentencing, will more than double the annual costs borne by Ottawa and the provinces; what costs $4.4-billion today will cost $9.5-billion in 2015-16. The Tories have taken issue with that estimate, but have failed to disclose the true cost.

Another piece of legislation, Bill S-10, now before the House of Commons, would impose mandatory minimum sentences on some drug offenders, including minor ones, such as those caught with as few as six marijuana plants. The legislation would put a lot more Canadians behind bars. With the cost of housing a prisoner at $88,000 a year in the federal system, such a measure would contribute to soaring costs. Neither law is likely to deter drug use, and indeed a group of 400 leading physicians and scientists this week issued a statement criticizing legislation that is "not scientifically grounded and which research demonstrates may actually contribute to health and social harms in our communities." Nor is it likely to reduce crime rates, which, coincidentally, have been declining year to year even in the absence of Tory "tough on crime" laws. In that respect, the Conservatives in Ottawa are not behaving conservatively, at least in a fiscal sense.

In the U.S., a group of conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Edwin Meese, who served as attorney-general under Ronald Reagan, and William J. Bennett, former federal "drug czar" under George H.W. Bush, have issued a "Right on Crime" statement, arguing that "conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender." Adds Mr. Clarke in his article in The Spectator, "Prison is not the answer for every offender. It can harden some non-violent, low-risk individuals, who come out as greater threats to society."

Michael Ignatieff has announced the Liberal opposition will oppose Bill S-10. This is a good thing. The remaining question is why the fiscal hawks in the government have not been heard on this subject. Canada is not Dodge City, and the one sure result of the government's posturing as frontier marshals will be to run up prison costs. At some point, the "Right on Crime" debate will need to be held in this country, too.

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