Provinces on hook for share of prison costs

It’s up to the provinces to find their share of the money to handle an expected surge in the prison population, says Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

OTTAWA — It’s up to the provinces to find their share of the money to handle an expected surge in the prison population, says Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

The federal government will spend $2 billion over five years to absorb more prisoners because of stiffer sentencing — though critics say the actual price tag will be much higher.

The parliamentary budget officer predicts legislation that will see many prisoners serve additional time behind bars could cost more than $10 billion over five years, with the federal government shelling out $5 billion and provincial governments more.

Ontario, for one, has called on the federal government to compensate the province for any additional costs.

Toews said Wednesday he doesn’t know how much the so-called truth-in-sentencing measure — one of several federal legislative changes that could bolster prison ranks — will cost the provinces, but they’ll have to shoulder their share of the financial burden.

“The provinces have been active partners in this push for legislation. They are the ones who came to us and said, ’We need this legislation.’ So they are our partners, in terms of not only crime-fighting agenda but the cost,” Toews said.

“Those are their responsibilities as well. And I believe that they are — many of them are — prepared to shoulder that responsibility.”

The minister’s comments came as he announced plans to spend more than $155 million to expand penitentiaries in Ontario and Quebec by 2013-14 — the latest in a series of prison-building initiatives.

The projects will create a total of almost 300 new beds at the Bath, Collins Bay and Millhaven prisons in the Kingston, Ont., area. They will add almost 200 new beds in Quebec, spread among the Federal Training Centre and Montee St-Francois and Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines facilities.

“Some of these are going to replace older units so that the facilities are in better shape,” Toews said.

The government says it expects to add more than 2,700 beds to men’s and women’s prisons across Canada in coming years.

Toews says violent, gang-related crime continues to rise, even if the overall crime rate is falling — and Canadians deserve safe streets.

“The violent crime rate and other crime rates remain at unacceptably high levels — over 300 per cent over the base rate in 1962,” he said.

“Even if we could, for argument’s sake, say that the crime rate has gone down one or two per cent, it is still unacceptably high.”

Some question whether stiffer sentencing provisions will make society more secure, arguing for a stronger emphasis on rehabilitation.

“The Harper government seems to feel that, a little like the Republican agenda in the States, you know, build as many prisons as possible and somehow we’ll all be safer,” said NDP Leader Jack Layton.

“If the criminals end up coming out and committing crimes again, none of us are any safer with that strategy.”

In the House of Commons, Liberal MP Marlene Jennings questioned the Conservative strategy of building costly “mega-prisons.”

Dave MacKenzie, parliamentary secretary to Toews, said dangerous criminals belong behind bars. “This commitment has a cost, a cost we feel Canadians are willing to invest because the cost to society is so much more.”

Toews also dismissed suggestions the plan to lock up people for longer periods will prove too expensive.

“Tell the victims of crime that cracking down on crime isn’t affordable. They have a right to walk on the street any time of day or night, and not be bothered by criminals who prey on them.”