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globe editorial

Images inside the Toronto Jail on Feb. 24, 2011.The Globe and Mail

If everything is on the table – including the Old Age Security benefit of roughly $540 a month – why do the billions of dollars being added to the federal corrections budget feel untouchable?

As the Senate begins hearings on the government's omnibus crime bill, and the almost certain prospect of huge, long-term budgetary increases in the jails moves a step closer, it seems an odd juxtaposition: trying to ensure the long-term health of the retirement security system, and spending like crazy, in the short, medium and long terms, on prison cells.

The government is right to be forward-looking – but why does it not question the long-term sustainability of the corrections system? If Canada can talk about the long-term challenges facing health care and seniors benefits, what about the long-term costs of jail expansion?

By 2012-13, the federal corrections budget will be $861-million higher than it was 2009-10, a 36- per-cent jump. The extra provincial costs may be larger than the extra federal ones. An already proclaimed law, ending the two-for-one sentencing discount, could cost in the billions each year, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page says. And Justice Minister Rob Nicholson promises still more toughness on crime.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a Senate committee this week that if the provinces had better mental-health services, fewer mentally ill people would be turning up in federal prison. "Do we then send [the provinces]a bill and say we have to build new wings in our federal penitentiaries because of your provincial policies?" he said.

It was a revealing comment. If the federal jails are filling up with the mentally ill, why doesn't the government propose alternatives to building new wings for them, in co-operation with the provinces?

The next generation of seniors' benefits is under the spotlight, and ought to be. Many other federal programs face reductions or elimination to get the deficit under control. Alas, no light shines on the costs of the soon-to-be mandatory minimum sentence of six months for growing six marijuana plants, or of other new crime laws. Why is this one area untouchable?

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