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The criminal justice system's $2.9 billion question

This federal election gives Canadians the opportunity to vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether they think the Conservatives have done a good job in the decade since Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006.

This federal election gives Canadians the opportunity to vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether they think the Conservatives have done a good job in the decade since Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006.

I’m going to try to step back from the daily sound-bite battles and take a longer view in a few columns about important national issues.

We’ll start with the criminal justice system, where the Conservative tough-on-crime platform has led to significant changes in laws, sentencing rules and levels of incarceration. This has also led to a dramatic increase in government spending, something that Conservatives have been less keen to brag about.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll focus on the economics and not the fairness of some of the legislative changes. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, whose mandate is to provide parliamentarians with independent analysis on the nation’s finances, put out a report on the topic that is the best long-term assessment of criminal justice spending that I’ve seen. It includes federal and provincial spending on police, courts, prisons and parole systems.

It came out in 2013, so is two years out of date. But since the federal Department of Justice won’t put out such useful information regularly, it is the best we have to go with.

The place to start is long-term crime rates. In 1962, there were less than 3,000 crimes reported per 100,000 Canadians. This figure rose steadily to peak in 1991 at over 10,000 incidents. Since then it has declined pretty steadily (except for 2003 for some reason) to 5,757 incidents per 100,000 Canadians in 2011 (the most recent year in the report). Statistics Canada reports the figure has since fallen every year since.

About 15 years into this trend of declining crime rates, the Conservatives took power and began implementing their new policies.

Despite the fall in crime, however, the number of incarcerations has actually gone up. In 2002, there were 133 inmates per 100,000 Canadians. By 2010, this had risen to 141 and was about the same in more recent data from 2014. Interestingly, most of the increase was in provincial prisons. In Canada, the feds control the criminal code but the provinces pay the majority of the bill for the justice system.

So, crime is down but we’re jailing more people. How much does this cost?

The PBO report says that total Canadian criminal justice spending was 0.968 per cent of Canada’s GDP in 2006 when the Conservatives took power. In 2012, it was 1.115 per cent.

Multiplied by our latest GDP figures, that difference works out to about $2.9 billion. This means that all levels of government in Canada are spending about $2.9 billion more per year now, than if they had kept the spending constant as a percentage of our economy.

That works out to about $80 per Canadian in extra spending.

So what to think about all this?

The Conservatives might say that it is money well spent to keep more offenders behind bars for longer.

Their opponents might say that it is largely wasted spending, since if you look at the rate of decrease in the crime rate it doesn’t look like the new Conservative policies did much to change its trajectory from 1991. Furthermore, they would probably accuse the Conservatives of taking the electoral benefits of their tough-on-crime posturing while passing on most of the cost of their policies to provinces (and territories).

Both sides would also debate whether it is better to lock up offenders for longer. One side may say this gives offenders more time to receive training and support services from the justice system. The other would reply that keeping people in jail longer hurts their long-term chances of getting jobs and re-integrating into society.

When put in per capita terms, $80 per Canadian doesn’t sound like much. Billions add up in Ottawa, however. The increase in criminal justice spending is more than the entire budget for the CBC, for example.

When the candidates come knocking on your door, you should ask them where they stand on this issue, how much it has cost the Yukon justice system, and whether they think it is a good thing.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith