Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cost of crime is high -- and so is the price of prisons

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Perhaps it's time for the get-tough-on-crime advocates to put their money where their mouths are.

The Conservative government's much-anticipated omnibus crime bill -- a conglomeration of tweaks to the justice system that, at its core, includes more and longer sentences -- is currently before the Senate and, thanks to the Tory majority, it is destined to become law sometime this year.

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The provinces are freaked out about the cost of enforcing the new and longer sentences; Ontario alone has estimated the cost of enforcement and incarceration at $1 billion per year, and Quebec expects to spend more than $500 million to build more jails. With provincial treasuries reeling from the recession, this is horrible timing.

Consider the situation in Manitoba. The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union this week sounded the alarm on overcrowding. The number of prisoners in provincial jails (for sentences less than two years and people on remand -- in custody awaiting trial) has doubled since 2004 to 2,200 prisoners. Over that time, however, the number of available beds has only increased by about 25 per cent, to a total of nearly 1,500 beds. So, at any one time, Manitoba jails have close to 700 more prisoners than beds.

The more worrisome trend is even though Manitoba hasn't been able to expand its capacity, total spending on corrections has almost doubled in the same period, to $141 million from $77 million. And remember, that's just spending on jails. You cannot forget policing and court services.

The experience should be the same in all the other provinces and territories. No one seems to know how to cover the costs of all this get-tough lawmaking. Although this space is not known for its influence on federal policies, perhaps it's time for Ottawa to levy a one-point bump in the Goods and Services Tax to cover the costs of locking up more criminals for longer periods of time.

Perhaps the Tories can hold a referendum to gauge public support for the JST (Justice Sales Tax -- only a working title of course), pointing out that it would provide billions of additional dollars for the federal government to pay for its crime-and-punishment fantasies. It would also prove whether the public will put its collective money where its collective mouth is when it comes to getting tough on crime.

Having pulled my tongue out of my cheeky cheek, it should be said nobody, especially those in elected office, would seriously propose a JST. But when Ottawa is already sparring with the provinces over health-care transfer payments and straining under the weight of billions of dollars in annual deficits, it's hard to imagine the central government has the money on hand right now to pay for its own crime bill.

Faced with an increasingly testy council of first ministers, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson are waging a full-time public-relations war in support of the bill. They argue it will not create more criminals, but rather allow for longer incarceration for the most dangerous offenders. They further argue the accrued cost of crime on society is far greater than the costs associated with the new laws.

Toews, a master of his own reality on this issue, recently said he is not comforted by crime statistics, which show crime in most categories is going down, because he knows Canadians are still in danger as long as one criminal walks the streets.

"I'm focused on danger," Toews said. "If there is a danger to (Canadians), that danger needs to be addressed and this legislation addresses that." It does not, however, provide any direction on how to pay for it or how to prioritize the spending to get the biggest impact.

Right now, Ottawa focuses heavily on policing (front end) and corrections (back end), with little attention on what happens in between. So, while we're getting better at catching criminals and incarcerating them longer, we care very little, it seems, about how we administer the justice system after arrest and before sentencing. Funding for legal aid and Crown prosecution services is pathetic. So, even as more people enter the system facing longer sentences, fewer can afford legitimate legal representation. Meanwhile, more and more cases are being dumped on beleaguered, overworked prosecutors. Ottawa is good at the quantity issues but doesn't have much feel for the quality of justice in this country.

If this is a government committed to making Canada "less dangerous," then surely it would be willing to consider modest measures to increase revenue to support the goal of a safer Canada.

It really is time for someone in this debate to take a wee bit of the rhetoric out of their mouths and replace it with some cold, hard cash.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2012 A4

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