Harper’s "tough-on-crime" bills costly, counterproductive

March 16, 2010

The Harper government is reintroducing its proposed “tough-on-crime” laws that were killed when Harper prorogued Parliament in January. These crime bills, if passed, will result in the lengthy incarceration of hundreds of additional offenders under harsh conditions.

Many Canadians approve. Fine, they say—whatever it takes to get the crime wave under control.

But there is no crime wave. Crime is down in virtually all categories, including violent crime. It has been falling steadily for 30 years. Yet the Harper government, not to be deterred by mere statistics, forges ahead.

The new laws will actually provide less public safety, not more. Hundreds of non-violent offenders will now attend “con college,” learning many dubious skills. Inmates will come back to the street bitter and angry at the treatment they have received. And many more of them will be released without any supervision whatsoever.

The alleged “urgency” of this legislation must therefore be questioned—as well as the huge expenditure of tax revenue that will be entailed in such a foolhardy approach to criminal justice.

Government spending estimates indicate that capital expenditures for the prison system will soar from $230.8 million last year to $329.4 million this year, an increase of about $100 million. This is a ridiculously low estimate, probably based upon Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ opinion that no new prisons will be needed.

In fact, $30 million more per year will be needed just to incarcerate the 500 additional marijuana growers who will go to jail in British Columbia each year. A new prison will have to be built to house them at a cost of $170 million-plus.

Multiplied by 10 provinces and three territories—and a seemingly endless number of new mandatory minimum sentences—the financial impact will be enormous. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence that mandatory minimums do not drive crime rates down, especially with respect to drug offences. And such offenders, faced with certain jail sentences, will be less likely to plead guilty, entailing more and longer trials, and more huge drains on the public purse.

In addition, the criminal justice system has its own way of dealing with the inequities that occur when judges no longer have discretion over sentencing. Police will refuse to lay charges; prosecutors will refuse to prosecute; juries will refuse to convict.

Another new law would abolish statutory release—by which inmates are released under supervision after serving two-thirds of their sentences. This will mean that offenders will spend 50% more time in prison. Up to 2,310 cells will be required to house them, at a capital cost of at least $924 million, and an operating cost of $156 million a year.

The Harper government has already passed a law eliminating the “2-for-1” allowance in sentencing for pre-trial custody. There will thus be longer periods of incarceration, more bail hearings, and an additional clogging of the courts.

The proposed elimination of conditional release (“house arrest”) for many offences will add still more costs. Just 15 such conditional sentences save the system more than $1 million per year—a significant saving for federal and provincial budgets that will now be eliminated.

The criminal justice system will need more courthouses, staff, police, sheriffs, correctional officers, parole officers, defence lawyers, legal aid, Crown attorneys, and judges. Trials will be frequent and long; appeals will be endless. But none of this immense increase has been costed out by the Harper government.

It was recently reported that the provinces are already spending an astounding $2.72 billion to build new prisons and expand old ones. The operating costs for the additional 5,788 beds will be more than $300 million annually.

Harper’s government says tough sentencing and harsh conditions of incarceration provide deterrence and reduce recidivism. Decades of statistics and research say this claim is nonsense. Potential offenders do not generally know or care what their prison sentence is likely to be. Offenders are more likely deterred by the prospect of getting caught. Better enforcement, coupled with community involvement and preventive programs, will deter crime more effectively than harsh sentencing.

Thirty years ago, the MacGuigan Report stated, “Society has spent millions of dollars over the years to create and maintain the proven failure of prisons.” This failure is largely due to the abuse of human rights which often accompanies incarceration. Yet the Harper government will accord to prisoners only “basic rights,” in contravention of human rights law and fundamental human decency.

The public is willing to pay for increased public safety. An informed public, however, will not want to pay extra hundreds of millions of dollars of their tax money to incarcerate thousands of offenders in an American-style version of criminal justice, when such an approach is demonstrably counterproductive.

The Harper government should be compelled to divulge the real costs—both financial and in human misery—of what can only be described as an ideologically-driven crime agenda.

Paula Mallea, B.A., M.A., Ll.B, practised criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston, and Manitoba. She acted mainly as defence counsel, with a part-time stint as prosecutor, and spent hundreds of hours in penitentiaries representing inmates. She is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.