locking up your tax dollars

The Conservative government intends to lock up billions of your tax dollars in new prison cells, despite both falling crime and an eye-popping $45-billion federal deficit this year.

The Conservative government intends to lock up billions of your tax dollars in new prison cells, despite both falling crime and an eye-popping $45-billion federal deficit this year.

The Conservatives aren’t keen to advertise how expensive their “tough on crime” policies will be. However, multiple bills making apparently minor changes to sentencing guidelines and other obscure legal rules are likely to add thousands of prisoners to federal, provincial and territorial hoosegows.

The independent Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has looked at just one of the bills, the Truth in Sentencing Act, and thinks this bill alone could add almost $1 billion a year to the deficit for years to come. For example, convicts will no longer get credit for two days for each day in jail before they get sentenced. PBO estimates this will add 159 days to the average sojourn for “guests of Her Majesty,” as they used to be called. This in turn will increase the number of cells by 3,754. And the number of guards, cooks, training consultants and so on.

This will require $618 million in annual expenses, plus $1.8 billion in new prison capacity.

If you spread the construction over five years, or about $360 million per year, that brings the annual cost increase into the billion-dollar range.

The government disputes the PBO’s figures, but Yukonomist hasn’t seen a convincing estimate of the total cost of “Tough on Crime” from ministers either. All they’ll admit to is “over 2,700 beds” in the coming years.

What we do know for sure is that the Department of Public Safety has been making a flurry of announcements. Words like “prison” and “cell” are carefully avoided. The talk is all about the “living units” and expansions to the Gravenhurst, Pittsburgh and Frontenac “institutions.”

Remember, this is happening when we expect a whopping $45-billion federal deficit this year, according to the government’s own update in October. In addition, the government has already borrowed another $19 billion to fund “extra-budgetary” cash needs so far this fiscal year.

Furthermore, don’t forget that about half the cost base of the Canadian prison system is carried by provinces and territories. So the new federal guidelines will cost big bucks from Halifax to Whitehorse, although the feds have been careful not to let slip how much additional cost they are downloading to other levels of government. We know, however, that the same taxpayer pays the bill whether it is federal or provincial.

To make things even more puzzling, Statistics Canada reports crime in Canada has been trending down for years.

In 2009, about 2.2 million crimes were reported to police. That’s 43,000 fewer than 2008. There were 5,000 fewer break-ins in Canada, and 10,000 fewer mischief offences and 17,000 fewer stolen cars.

The agency also reports that the number and average severity of youth crime has “generally been declining” since 2001.

Cocaine and counterfeiting both fell more than 20 per cent in 2009, although extortion and impaired driving were up. There is mixed news on murder, with attempts up, but successes down.

The boffins at Statistics Canada have also created a “Crime Severity Index” which measures the number of crimes reported and then weighs them by severity, based on typical sentences.

It was more than 110 in 1999, but has since fallen steadily (except for 2003) to around 85.

Whitehorse’s own index in 2009 was 149, which is troubling but still less severe than Victoria, Yellowknife, Terrace and other criminal hotbeds.

The government makes the point that when people are locked up, they find it hard to commit more crimes. True enough. Conservative Minister Gordon O’Connor says Canadians don’t like hearing that a “violent criminal sentenced to nine years in prison could potentially be on our streets in as little as three years (after sentencing) if he or she spent two years awaiting trial.”

I’m not convinced that locking up criminals for longer is worth borrowing billions of dollars, burdening future generations with decades of bond payments. Or that hiring thousands of Canadians to be prison guards instead of other, likely more productive, jobs makes sense.

And in the big picture, it might be better to replace the slogan “Tough on Crime” with a more sensible criminal policy.

Legalizing marijuana and taxing it like tobacco and beer would likely do more to reduce crime than the Conservative prison policy, and would help fix the deficit instead of making it worse.

But one suspects the Conservative party is more interested in symbolism than smart policy.

The voters will decide what they think about that. But in the meantime it would be nice if the government would come clean with how much “Tough on Crime” will cost the rest of us.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.