The former director of Manitoba's adult corrections system says it will cost $600 million to fix the province's overcrowded jails.
And Reg Forester says the annual growth rate in incarcerations plus new federal tough-on-crime laws mean another $600 million in new jail beds will likely be needed in a few years unless Manitoba radically rethinks the way it handles convicted criminals.
"We can't tweak our way out of this one," said Forester, who served as the warden of Headingley Correctional Centre and the Winnipeg Remand Centre in his career with Manitoba Justice. "We have to go back to the drawing board."
At a public hearing Tuesday night, Forester told a panel the province's approach to jails is not sustainable -- jails will never keep up with the need without a massive infusion of cash.
Instead of building hundreds of new beds, the justice system's front end needs to change, he said. That means an end to zero tolerance for some crimes, expanding the use of restorative justice, mediation and community sentencing for lesser crimes and even the legalization of marijuana.
And every inmate should be employed while in jail and get basic literacy tutoring and ample access to vocational programs.
"I'm not suggesting a soft-on-crime approach," said Forester. "I'm suggesting a sensible-on-crime approach."
As of Monday, provincial jails were over capacity by 928 inmates, a growing problem that prompted the province to create a three-person capacity-review panel. The panel has been given the task of deciding how many extra beds are needed over the next decade and what kind of training, counselling and education programs ought to exist in jails to reduce reoffense rates.
Among the options being floated are two smaller jails or one huge one -- a 750-bed facility that would be the largest in the province, far bigger even than Manitoba's federal penitentiary.
Panel chairman Richard Bruce, Brandon's former police chief, said the committee likely wouldn't recommend the size or location of future jails or offer spending estimates but instead would make broad capacity recommendations.
It's difficult to guess what a new jail might cost to build and operate, and the province has been reluctant to offer a ballpark figure.
Already, operating costs for Manitoba corrections have increased more than 80 per cent over the last six years.
Manitoba's newest corrections facility, the 193-bed women's jail in Headingley, cost $80 million to build.
Edmonton just completed a new remand centre -- a campus the size of 27 football fields on the edge of the city -- that can house 2,800 inmates awaiting trial. The cost was $568 million.
British Columbia announced Tuesday it will spend $200 million on a maximum-security 360-cell jail on First Nations land in the Okanagan.
Small cities vie for jails
TWO small Manitoba cities are hoping to harness a growing Manitoba commodity: convicted criminals.
Thompson and Dauphin are both vying for the province's next generation of jails, needed to curb dramatic overcrowding and an expected influx of inmates jailed by new federal crime legislation.
Both cities have already made their pitches to the three-person capacity-review panel tasked with advising the government on new jails and better inmate rehabilitation programs.
The dual proposals emphasize one of the province's chief dilemmas: Would Manitoba be best served by one mega-jail or several smaller facilities scattered around the province?
Thompson's pitch, refined over six months with northern agencies and detailed in a glossy concept plan, is for a restorative justice facility. The campus would house 220 inmates -- men, women and youth -- as well as a host of addictions, educational and cultural programs tailored specifically to the north's First Nations population.
There is no jail north of The Pas, even though many inmates come from the north. A jail in Thompson would allow inmates to remain closer to friends and family.
"We don't want to underestimate that," said Mayor Tim Johnston. "Moving individuals away from their supports creates a big challenge."
Johnston made his pitch to the jail-review committee last month and met Tuesday with Manitoba Justice staff.
Thompson's bid has the support of northern chiefs, the local chamber of commerce and even Ken Champagne, chief judge of the provincial court.
Last week, the City of Dauphin also made a pitch for a new jail at a hearing of the capacity review panel.
Dauphin's existing jail, now nearly 100 years old, has 61 beds but often more than 80 inmates.
Dauphin's chief administrative officer, Brad Collett, said the city's employment, addictions and aboriginal agencies are able and willing to help provide services to rehabilitate inmates. Geographically, a larger jail able to offer more programs to inmates in the region makes sense, he said.
-- Mary Agnes Welch