It has been a centrepiece of the Conservative platform — getting “tough on crime.” No matter how many experts or criminologists denounced those plans as ineffective or counter-productive, they were dismissed as “elites” who were out of touch with the Canadian voter.
But does the Conservative tough-on-crime agenda actually stand up to scrutiny? Opposition politicians don’t think so. And the Harper government seems to be going out of its way to ensure that the real costs aren’t revealed either.
“We’re deliberately being told they’re not going to tell us,” says the NDP’s justice critic, Joe Comartin. Even after a leak hinted that Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan had asked cabinet for a budget increase of anywhere between a quarter billion dollars to three quarters of a billion, Van Loan has since cited cabinet secrecy and refused to give up the numbers.
“We don’t know for sure what numbers he put in front of them, but if he put in a figure of say, a quarter billion, it’s nowhere near going to do what is going to be necessary to accommodate the number of additional prisoners we’re going to have,” Comartin says.
All the Commons justice committee ever gets from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson are what Comartin terms “bland assurances” that Corrections Canada will be able to handle the increase in prison population from these bills, though no opposition Parliamentarian actually believes that.
After all, housing more prisoners in an already crowded penal system is expensive.
“We know that on average it costs $102,000 per year to keep a person in a federal penitentiary,” says gay Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, a member of the Commons public safety committee. While that figure is slightly more for a woman in prison and slightly less for a man, it is an average figure.
“If people are in half a year longer, or a year longer, or five years longer, you multiply it by $102,000,” Oliphant says. “We have no numbers on their projections on what these mandatory minimums are going to be.”
Liberal Senator Joan Fraser chaired the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee, and the government was no more forthcoming with the numbers for them either.
“Mr Van Loan clearly chose not to appear before the legal and constitutional affairs committee, and I thought that was a very great pity because we had a series of bills before us that have significant implications for his department,” Senator Fraser says. “In particular the remand bill and C-15, the drug bill, had clear implications for prisons, for the number of prisoners there will be in Canada.”
The remand bill — which eliminated the “two-for-one credit” for time served awaiting trial — was estimated to have an 11 percent increase on prison populations, though without proper figures from Corrections Canada, there was no way to be certain.
“I think there are 27,000 prisoners in federal institutions now,” Senator Fraser says. “That would be another, let’s say, 3,000 prisoners to the population, and the Correctional Services investigator, Mr Sapers, has warned us that the prisons are overcrowded now.
“You dump another 3,000 in there, and what does that mean in terms of prison capacity, budgetary implications both for buildings and for ongoing staffing, and for programming?”
In the Senate committee, Nicholson said that they would have to ask Van Loan those questions, and yet Van Loan has refused to appear.
“Don Head, who’s the head of the Correctional Services said yes, I have those numbers, I know those numbers, but unfortunately they’re in a document I prepared for cabinet and I’m bound by secrecy, therefore you have to get it from the cabinet,” Senator Fraser says. “We’re back to seeking them from Mr Van Loan, and he wouldn’t appear. We had to use best guesses when we were trying to figure out what to do about that bill.
“This is very difficult — I don’t think it’s a good way to make public policy, to pass legislation, to spend public money.”
And this was only for one bill. Comartin says that corrections-related NGOs have told him that if the government’s raft of crime bills were passed and enforced, we could see an increase in prison populations between one third and 50 percent.
“When you look at those kinds of numbers, the estimate is that we would have to build at least two more large — I’m talking super-prisons, and the capital price tag for that is running at a quarter billion for each one of them,” Comartin says. “We’re talking a half billion and maybe a third one if we get up to the 50 percent additional number of prisoners. That’s not talking anything other than capital expenditures. We’ve got to bring our existing prisons up to a more humane standard. But once you’ve got that, then you’ve got the operational cost, and the cost is running at another half-billion a year.”
What has also become apparent is the state of our prisons currently and the lack of funding for programming and staffing — something which can be even more important than simply housing inmates.
The Commons public safety committee was undertaking a study on mental health and addictions and the capacity in the prison system to deal with them. A recent report by the Correctional Services investigator, Howard Sapers, concluded that up to 80 percent of the prison population suffers from either addictions or mental health issues.
“It’s a huge problem, and part of that has to do with personnel,” says Oliphant. “They simply don’t have the capacity of professionals — psychiatrists, psychologists, addictions counsellors, social workers and occupational therapists — to actually do the kind of work that needs to be done.”
NDP public safety critic Don Davies has an example of the inadequate training being given to guards in current facilities, citing one facility as an example.
“They had no nursing care or medical care after 7pm,” Davies says. “If you went into a cell, and you found that someone had tried to hang themselves with a ligature, what a guard would do is have to go into the cell, cut the ligature off, stanch the bleeding and apply primary medical care, start to counsel the person, and try to get the person settled down. Now think of the skill set, the training and the difficulty that you’re bringing to bear on them as well as security, so this gives you a bit of a flavour of what we saw in prisons.
“We deliver this core programming, which is geared to the median. I guess it’s better than nothing, but it’s simply not addressing the needs of most of the prisoners.”
Davies is also critical of the way that Corrections budgets are being allocated.
“I remember they allocated $500 million — this was about a year ago over the next four years — for prisons. All of the money was targeted at infrastructure and interdiction for drugs,” Davies says. “Did you know that not a penny was directed at treatment, or at harm-reduction either, which they’re ideologically opposed to? But certainly treatment is something that everybody agrees they didn’t put any money towards that.
“They’re abolishing the prison farm system. You won’t find a single person that works in Corrections, from a warden, to a corrections officer, to any of the professional staff, to the prisoners — not one will tell you that’s a good idea. And yet they’re going ahead with that. So we need more vocational programming. We need more progressive and creative programming in prisons. We need more therapeutic approaches — not less.”
While prorogation has killed the crime bills currently on the Order Paper, they are likely to be resurrected shortly after Parliament resumes, some of them in the same stage as they were at during dissolution, though that would require the consent of other parties.
C-15, the bill on mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes, is in an unusual position because it died in the Senate after it had been amended and sent back to the Commons. It would need to be re-introduced back to either the Commons or Senate without the amendments, and given that the Conservatives will have a plurality in the Senate and a majority on many of the committees, the amendments may not make it through a second time.
As for getting accurate numbers, Oliphant plans to put questions on the Order Paper once Parliament resumes in order to get the civil service projections on numbers and costs. He also plans to revisit the public safety committee’s study with an eye to finishing it.
“The committee gets reconstituted, and we have to again negotiate what study we’re going to do, but my assumption is that we’ll still form a majority on that committee, and we’ll push ahead with that study,” Oliphant says. “I hope that report will be out in late April or early May.”
But the underlying problem of a government that refuses to be accountable to Parliament with respect to its true costs and projections for its justice agenda remains.
Public Safety Canada did not respond to Xtra’s requests for information.
>> Dale Smith is Xtra’s federal politics reporter. He blogs every weekday at Hill Queeries.