Jail budget puts Canada under house arrest

Canada's new Truth in Sentencing Act will shackle us all. The legislation ends the two-for-one credit for pretrial jail time. It means felons are going to be spending more time behind bars.

Canada’s new Truth in Sentencing Act will shackle us all.

The legislation ends the two-for-one credit for pretrial jail time. It means felons are going to be spending more time behind bars.

But incarceration comes at a cost. A tremendous cost, according to Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer.

After looking at the number of inmates in the federal system and evaluating the effects on their jail time under the new legislation, he’s predicting prison costs are going to skyrocket to at least $9.5 billion a year by 2016 from $4.5 billion last fiscal year.

And that’s just the federal tab.

The provinces have twice as many inmates as the federal system.

Last year, the Yukon spent $11.6 million running Whitehorse Correctional Centre. Under the new sentencing rules, it will be spending more – perhaps as much as $16 million a year.

Looked at another way, the money we spend jailing felons a little longer is going to suck resources away from health, education, tourism, environment – just about anything else you can think of.

Is that a good use of public money at a time of global financial uncertainty?

And, worse, Canadians don’t even know what the real costs of the legislation will be.

While Page has crunched some numbers, he’s had a hard time getting departmental information. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has not provided concrete estimates on the cost of the legislation.

“I’d rather not share that,” said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews of the cost of his anti-crime bills, which include the Truth in Sentencing provisions.

Originally, he pegged the cost at $90 million over two years. It is now clear that was a lowball eerily similar to the firearms registry.

The budget for federal prisons has already risen $860 million, to $3.13 billion over fiscal 2009-10, far beyond Toews’ estimate.

Now, though he won’t provide any hard data, Toews is saying the cost will be $2 billion over five years, far below Page’s estimates, which go as high as $10 billion a year.

This huge increase in spending is coming in the shadow of a staggering federal budget deficit and government-wide restraint orders.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Conservative government is spending billions to jail convicted felons a little longer to maintain a facade of public safety when Canada’s crime rate has been falling for a decade.

The result will be far less federal money available for other programs. And an erosion of provincial and territorial budgets too.

Sound like a good use of public money?

Canadians have a right to know exactly how much the anti-crime laws are going to cost them. The truth will set us free, as it were.

Unfortunately, the Harper government is behaving otherwise.

And, as a result of this ridiculous spending, the shackles are on. Very soon, Canadians will feel the pinch.

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