The high cost of feeling safe

No single initiative will curtail crime in Canada. But it is fair for Canadians to expect governments to keep trying.

No single initiative will curtail crime in Canada.

But it is fair for Canadians to expect governments to keep trying.

The question, then, is whether the current strategy makes sense — on either the social or fiscal fronts.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have looked at the end product of our social failure — criminal behaviour — and decided to work backwards from there.

So they are building more prison space, toughening sentencing provisions and doing away with two-for-one sentencing. And the get-tough-on-crime mandate is still high on the government’s agenda.

In Central Alberta, that means room for 146 more prisoners at the minimum- and medium-security Bowden Institution, created at a cost of at least $25 million. Construction is underway.

Across the country, the Correctional Service of Canada will spend $517 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year alone on new construction.

In operating costs, the federal prison system will dip into taxpayers’ pockets for $2.98 billion in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Those costs have increased 86 per cent since 2006, when the Conservatives were first elected; that’s $1.38 billion annually.

Over the next few years, Canadian prisons will add thousands of beds and Correctional Service estimates that the general offender population will exceed 27,000 people in three years, from 22,700 now (that number includes prisoners, those on parole and those unlawfully at large).

Each one of those federal prisoners costs more than $110,000 a year to keep in jail, and those costs too are rising rapidly.

By contrast, each RCMP officer added to the force in Alberta costs $155,800 a year (in other provinces, and in some urban forces, the cost per officer can be as low as $140,000 a year). Ottawa pays 30 per cent of the RCMP bill in Alberta, or $87 million, and the province pays the rest ($203 million for 1,480 officers).

In essence, the federal government cost to put additional resources into Alberta communities is just $46,740 per officer.

Based on those figures, Canadians have to wonder if the resources are being directed where they will do the most good.

Of course, there are many factors involved in the making of a criminal, and they stretch from bad parenting to inadequate child care to insufficient educational opportunities. They include too few counselling resources, too few opportunities to do community work rather than jail time, and too few employment opportunities. They include mental health issues and inadequate resources to deal with immigration issues.

Yet the Conservatives want to make Canada a safer nation by putting more people in prison, for longer periods.

Each time we send someone to prison, we give them an opportunity to hone their criminal skills. Each time we send someone to prison, we give them a chance to become ill and drain the health-care system now and later on (Correctional Services officials say that at least 30 per cent of all federal prisoners have hepatitis C).

We also have a crippled justice system: too few judges and courtrooms means justice is repeatedly delayed and, in some cases, never served.

Obviously we need prisons, both to punish wrong-doers and to protect the rest of us.

But building more prison cells seems to be ignoring the root cause of criminality: the social ills that led to the deviant behaviour in the first place. And it fails to recognize that Canadians feel more secure when police are visible; a recent report to Red Deer city council said that better than 35 per cent of local residents want to see more police on the streets.

All Canadians — including those who break the law — would be better served if much of this money was invested in areas that help prevent criminal behaviour in the first place. Building more prisons is hardly the way to ensure a more civil, safer Canada.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.