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June 25, 2010

Harper's tough-on-crime, why?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Harper is now prepared to spend more money on Canada's natives - by locking more of them up for longer periods of time.

“Tough on crime” is also going to be very tough on the public purse.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page foresees an increase from the current $4.4 billion a year to $9.5 billion in 2015-16, and that is just for the additional impact for the so-called Truth in Sentencing Act, which removes the almost automatic two-for-one credit prisoners get for time spent in provincial jails prior to transfer to federal penitentiaries. 

He sees the change as adding over half a year to the average sentence.

He also sees the potential need for an additional 12 new prisons.  Without the new prisons, deduct $1.8 billion from the additional cost of this one piece of legislation. 

However, that building spree could only be avoided by double- and triple-bunking.  Such overcrowding inevitably creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere that leads to serious escalations of violence and destruction.  These consequences come with both monetary and non-monetary costs.

The Harper government is going ahead with this and other measures to increase punishment at a time when overall crime rates have been declining for years. 

In other words, it is not an increase in crime that is the trigger.  Rather, it is a matter of ideology. 

While the Conservatives make cutting costs and taxes their mantra, they are all too ready to write a blank cheque for corrections and the military.  In their correctional policy, it is a matter of what the criminals “deserve”.

One group that will suffer from the Harper approach is Native Canadians. 

At four per cent of the general population, they make up 17% of the prison population—more than four times their portion of the population in general.  The reasons for this appalling rate are found in the social conditions in which they live and in the legacy of their treatment in the residential schools and other past and present discriminatory treatment. 

To cite a current example, child welfare services on reserves are under-funded by 22% in comparison with what is spent for other children. 

Can’t he come up with a more effective—and cost-effective—way of spending money on Native-related issues?  More effective ways than doubling incarceration expenditures?

The Tories have used crime -related situations to create hysteria and to bully the Opposition with the threat of being labeled soft on crime. 

So far, the tactic has worked, as the Opposition parties, with the partial exception of the Bloc Québécois, have wilted under the heat. 

A typical example is the hurried last minute change in the law on pardons, to lessen the possibility that Karla Homolka might conceivably obtain a pardon in July. 

Legal changes of that matter need to be made in a way that makes due deliberation possible, not on the basis of manic ad-hockery, the Harper government’s preferred method of promoting paranoid correctional policy change.

Kevin Page has provided a glimpse of the costs of just one Harper “tough on crime” initiative.  In anticipation of this report, the Opposition Liberals and NDP have begun to wake from their slumber, if only opening one eye.  They still went along with the silly Karla Homolka stunt. Yet, other Tory initiatives in the field of crime and corrections may have a tougher go. 

To get a preview of where Canada under the Tories is headed, let’s look at where similar policies have gotten California. 

Like Canada, its crime rate has been generally stable, but incarceration rates and lengths of time in prison have mounted rapidly, along with costs.

California’s government is on the edge of bankruptcy. 

A major but by no means the only reason is the costs of the correctional system.  They also have severe legal limitations on ability to raise revenue. 

In Canada, the Tories promise no tax increases ever and elimination of deficit and debt, which parallels the California syndrome. 

Overcrowding of California prisons is so great that a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce the prison population to no more than 137.5% in less than two years. 

While the state is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, it has developed a plan. 

It plans to create more prison beds, an expensive proposition.  It also proposes to redefine some property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies, to ease up on reincarceration for violations of probation and parole, to hold some offenders in jail rather than transferring them to prison, to use house arrest with monitoring, and to provide earlier release for good behavior and for work performed. 

Some of these provisions run contrary to the Harper thrust, but California is finding out the hard way that the state, not just the prisoners, is doing hard time.  Yet, it does not seem ready to get out of the rut of increasing prison capacity. 

One factor involved in the court-ordered reform is the inadequacy of medical and psychological treatment in prison, a matter raised in previous court cases.  Five years ago, a judge took medical care for prisons out of the hands of the prison system and appointed an overseer to control prison medical services.

Treasury Minister Jim Flaherty has assured us that the Tories will never increase taxes. 

The government is spending $16 billion on new military aircraft. 

It will more than double the $4.4 billion on Corrections by 2015-16. 

And it will eliminate the deficit and debt. 

While such sleight of hand challenges credulity, the effort to carry it out can only be disastrous. 

Social programs will be slashed.  Costs will be downloaded onto the provinces.  Disadvantaged groups such as Native peoples will be squeezed like sardines into overcrowded prisons.

Remember the song, “California, Here I Come?”

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