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Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway Stockwell Day speaks during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday Aug. 3, 2010.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The only alarming thing about a six-year-old rise in unreported crime is that the government of Canada is leaning on it to justify a $5.1-billion a year expansion of the prison system.

"People simply aren't reporting the same way they used to," says Stockwell Day, a senior minister in the Conservative government. "I'm saying one statistic of many that concerns us is the amount of crimes that go unreported."

The office of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson later released more detail on the allegedly "alarming statistic:" in 2004, a Statistics Canada survey found that 34 per cent of crime incidents were reported to police, down from 37 per cent in 1999.

This is alarming? A six-year-old uptick in unreported crimes - mostly minor thefts not considered sufficiently serious by Canadians to report, says StatsCan. And where are the other data points of concern? None have been cited.

StatsCan also found that 94 per cent of Canadians felt safe. Is Mr. Day alarmed on behalf of the frightened six per cent? And what do unreported crimes have to do with building more prisons anyway?

There is an alarming number Mr. Day neglected to mention. At the moment, Canada spends $4.4-billion a year on its jails (Ottawa and the provinces combined). The Conservative government will raise the costs to $9.5-billion a year, by the estimate of Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Mr. Page looked only at the Truth in Sentencing Act, which takes away the two-for-one credit for jail time served before sentencing. (The government says the true extra cost is $400-million a year, but it has offered scant supporting evidence.)

The principle behind the law is sound - the bonus was too rich - but that does not justify such an outlandish expenditure in what should be an era of government spending restraint. And this is just one law of many that could increase the prison population.

Crime rates are in decline. The government has not made the case that crime is a priority that overrides the need to reduce spending and the deficit.

If the government has persuasive justifications for such recklessness with public money, it should make them known. It should not fall back on a six-year-old blip in unreported crime. What is alarming is that the government is apparently bent on more than doubling the cost of the prison system, at a time of restraint, on the thinnest of pretexts.