Tough on taxpayers

The Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda is also tough on taxpayers, with the cost of running prisons potentially set to more than double, says Parliament’s spending watchdog.

OTTAWA — The Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda is also tough on taxpayers, with the cost of running prisons potentially set to more than double, says Parliament’s spending watchdog.

Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page says the Truth in Sentencing Act could raise total prison costs to $9.5 billion a year in 2015-2016 from $4.4 billion this year. It could also require the construction of as many as a dozen new prisons.

With that kind of price tag, Page isn’t sure taxpayers can afford it.

“It’s a lot of money in a period of time we’re generating deficits,” he said Tuesday after releasing his report into the costs of the Act.

The law — just one of the government’s anti-crime initiatives — limits the credit a judge can allow for time served. Page said it will add about 159 days to average sentences, bringing the average time in federal custody to 722 days from 563.

But the numbers are much higher in the provincial system.

“If you look at average head counts, they are twice as big in the provincial system — 26,000 every year versus 13,000 at the federal level,” he said.

“The provinces and the territories carry the weight of the correctional services system in Canada so the impact is going to be enormous on the provinces and territories.”

Page estimates the provincial share of prison costs will jump to 56 per cent in 2015-16 from 49 per cent this fiscal year.

But what Page didn’t take into account in his report was the potential benefit of the law and its goals, said Manitoba’s Attorney General Andrew Swan.

“I’m an optimist. I do believe that the ending of the two for one credit is going to result in better outcomes,” Swan said.

“In Manitoba, the average time that somebody is sentenced is rather short and it doesn’t give us a lot of time to work with people to try and get them better prepared to face society when they get out of a jail.”

Swan added that the provinces did ask the federal government for the change in legislation and were prepared to pay. His province has already added some capacity to its prison system because of the new law.

“There are other things that we’d like to spend money on, but public safety is very important to Manitobans and we have to put up the money to do it,” Swan said.

A spokeswoman for Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services said the province is keeping an eye on the price tag.

“Ontarians expect safe communities and the Ontario government is more than willing to do its share,” Laura Blondeau said in an e-mail.

“However, the Federal government cannot expect the provinces to pick up costs for federally led initiatives.”

Page said he knew incarceration was expensive but, when it came to calculating the figures and the total costs, he said “you get to big numbers in a hurry. Originally, I was shocked how big it was.”

The bill — a cornerstone of the Tories’ tough-on-crime agenda — received royal assent last October. But the government has been criticized for launching its initiatives without carefully considering the costs.

The 2009-10 federal budget contained no mention of the new act, Page said, and it’s not clear whether Corrections Service Canada has budgeted for it either.

Page said the holes in their accounting and refusal to co-operate made it difficult for him to carry out the study, so he cautioned his numbers are conservative estimates.

The $1.8 billion to build new prisons, for example, could be eliminated if no new facilities are built and inmates are required to double- or triple-bunk.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said CSC did co-operate and because of that he doesn’t understand Page’s estimates, especially figures suggesting around a dozen new prisons could be required.

“If he wasn’t getting any information from Correctional Services Canada, he must be making this up,” Toews said.

Toews said he’s sticking by his government’s estimates that the program will cost about $2 billion over five years, which will include adding some new prison cells.

“I’ve seen nothing that would change my mind in that respect,” said Toews.

“Our goal is to protect Canadians, to keep streets safe. We want to keep dangerous repeat offenders off the streets and we are prepared to pay the cost in order to do that.”

Mark Holland, the Liberal MP who asked for the costing, said he was shocked by Page’s findings.

“This figure for one (crime) bill is enormous, and we have to remember this is one bill,” Holland said. “When you start thinking about all of the other (crime) bills — 13 — this can crush Canada’s budget, it can destroy and cannibalize the other departments.

“How are we going to afford our health care? How are we afford education? How are we going to afford our military if we have these failed Republican policies eating away at all the other departments?”

Holland said the Liberals would think harder about signing off on the remaining crime bills if the price tag isn’t set up front.

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