It has been a centre-piece of the Conservative platform — getting “tough on crime.”
But does the Conservative tough-on-crime agenda 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.
“If people are in half a year longer, or a year longer, or five years longer, you multiply it by $102,000,” Oliphant says.
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.
Liberal Senator Joan Fraser chaired the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee.
“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, but Van Loan has refused to appear.
And this was for only 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 of between 30 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 super-prisons, and the capital price tag for that is running at a quarter billion for each one of them,” Comartin says.
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 at the same stage they were in at dissolution, though that would require the consent of other parties.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ plan to fill Senate vacancies could wreck havoc on the work of the upper chamber. For instance, another crime bill, mandating minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, died in the Senate after being amended. If the Conservatives fill all Senate vacancies, they may reintroduce the bill without the amendments and see it pass.
Public Safety did not respond to Xtra’s requests for information.