The Harper Tories are boasting government coffers are nearly $1.5 billion richer after their tough-on-crime policies failed to swamp prisons with inmates -- as critics and even corrections officials had predicted.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a news conference in Winnipeg Wednesday the Correctional Service of Canada will not need $1.48 billion in funds budgeted over seven years after an expected explosion in the federal prison population failed to materialize.
Corrections officials had projected two years ago new anti-crime laws, such as the one that ended a two-for-one credit for time served in advance of sentencing, would cause the federal prison population to soar to 17,725 by the end of June 2012. On Wednesday, Toews said there were 14,965 federal inmates in June.
"The influx of new inmates predicted has simply not materialized," he told reporters. "Contrary to predictions by our critics and the opposition, we have not seen the so-called substantive increase in offenders swamping the correctional system and creating untold new costs."
The NDP dismissed Toews' comments as premature. They pointed out many of the anti-crime measures were only approved by Parliament this spring.
"They just got royal assent, so we still have to wait for the increase in the (prison) population. We're going to have to wait a few years and we're going to see it," Rosane Doré Lefebvre, the NDP's deputy critic of public safety, said from Ottawa. "People are going to stay longer in the prisons with those bills and you're going to have more and more."
Ottawa has pledged to create 2,700 more prison beds system-wide at a cost of $600 million. But that's a far cry from the $19 billion opposition politicians predicted would need to be spent, Toews said.
He said the prisons did not become swamped because a relatively small group of hard-nosed criminals were being targeted by the Harper government's anti-crime legislation. "Once they're locked up, they're incapacitated and that has a very positive effect on safety," he said.
Prison costs are rising, but not as quickly as critics projected, Toews said.
The federal prison system has a capacity to house 15,000 inmates (not counting the 2,700 new beds now being built). Ottawa announced in April it will close the Kingston Penitentiary and two other institutions in Eastern Canada by 2014-15 at a savings of $120 million. The three facilities have 1,000 beds in total.
Four local members of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers stood outside the downtown federal office where Toews spoke to the media. They were hoping to meet the minister afterwards to demand corrections officers be consulted in prison planning.
Union member Trevor Reid said it's too early to tell what impact the various federal crime reforms will have on prison numbers.
"He's saying we haven't met the (inmate) projections. We think it's too early to tell," Reid said.
Corrections staff are already feeling increased pressure due to the double-bunking of prisoners at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, he said. A new 96-bed unit planned for the facility but has yet to be completed.
-- with files from The Canadian Press