This week, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page released his analysis of the cost of the new jails that would be required under the "tough on crime" Conservative Party agenda in a report entitled "The Funding Requirement and Impact of the "Truth in Sentencing Act" on the Correctional System of Canada. Mr. Page analyzed the cost of a single piece of legislation at the request of the Opposition Liberals.
Mr. Page does admit that the figures used in his report are best estimates only since the federal government would not release the data he requested. Join the club Mr. Page. Here’s a screen cap from that page in the report:
The federal government’s "Truth in Sentencing Act" (Bill C-25), which came into effect on February 22, 2010, would eliminate the two-for-one credits that prisoners now get for pre-remand time spent in jail once they are sentenced. Some Canadians charged with crimes wait for lengthy periods between the time of their arrest and the time of their sentencing because of delays in the court system. Originally the credit was in place because it was deemed that time spent in lock-up before sentencing was "harder time" than the time spent in real prison because of crowded conditions. Mr. Page’s report deals only with the costs associated with this single change in legislation.
Here are the guts of Bill C-25:
"The bill amends the Criminal Code (the Code) to limit the credit a judge may allow for any time spent in pre-sentencing custody in order to reduce the punishment to be imposed at sentencing, commonly called “credit for time served.”(1) There are three scenarios:
- In general, a judge may allow a maximum credit of one day for each day spent in pre-sentencing custody (“custody” in the bill) (clause 3 of the bill, new section 719(3) of the Code). On 8 October 2009, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs proposed to amend the bill to allow a maximum credit of one and one-half days for each day spent in pre-sentencing custody. However, the Senate defeated the amendment on 20 October 2009.
- However, if, and only if, the circumstances justify it, a judge may allow a maximum credit of one and one-half days for each day spent in pre-sentencing custody (clause 3 of the bill, new section 719(3.1) of the Code). On 8 October 2009, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs proposed to amend the bill to allow a maximum credit of two days for each day spent in pre-sentencing custody. However, the Senate defeated the amendment on 20 October 2009.
- If the person’s criminal record or breach of conditions of release on bail was the reason for the pre-sentencing custody,(2) a judge may not allow more than one day’s credit for each day spent in pre-sentencing custody (clause 3 of the bill, new section 719(3.1) of the Code).On 8 October 2009, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs proposed to amend the bill to allow a maximum credit of one and one-half days for each day spent in pre-sentencing custody. However, the Senate defeated the amendment on 20 October 2009."
In his report, Mr. Page predicts that the additional 13 federal prisons required to house the 4000 additional offenders would cost federal and provincial taxpayers an additional $5 billion over the next 5 years as shown in this diagram from the report.
Mr. Page’s analysis estimates that the total cost of federal and provincial corrections will increase to $9.5 billion by fiscal 2015 – 2016, up from the current level of $4.4 billion just for the implementation of Bill C-25 alone.
Some provinces had been in discussions with the federal government to abolish the two-for-one pre-sentencing credit; as such, the federal government claims that any additional costs incurred by the provinces will not be covered by the government because the changes were requested by the provinces.
Provincial facilities are used for inmates serving sentences of less than two years and federal facilities are used to house inmates that have been sentenced to terms greater than two years. The report estimates that the provinces would be responsible for 56% of the total new costs.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, quite naturally, disagrees with Mr. Page’s analysis. He states that the Correctional Service of Canada estimated the increased cost to the federal government at $2 billion over five years. Minister Toews feels that no new facilities will be required because the government will rely on more double-bunking (housing two inmates in a cell designed for one) and that, at most, some new units will be built but only in existing facilities. He also claims that the provinces will be net beneficiaries of the new legislation because more inmates will be recipients of sentences longer than two years in duration meaning that the federal government will be responsible for their room and board.
It is interesting to note that the Liberal government voted for the passage of the Bill C-25 when it came to the house back in 2009. Now, their spokesperson Mark Holland claims that they were mislead about the costs involved. It surprises me that the Liberals went so far as to actually trust the government’s estimates in the first place! They have no one to blame but themselves.
To put the new legislation into a broader perspective, the United States has the highest documented prison and jail population in the world with nearly 2.3 million inmates in local, state and federal prisons at the end of 2009. In fact, by some estimates, they have 25% of the world’s prisoners. One in every 133 United States citizens is now in prison of some sort and at year end 2008, an additional 5.1 million citizens were under "correctional supervision" putting the total ratio of inmates and parolees at one in every 41 United States citizens. That is a rather shocking number, especially when you consider that the number of prisoners is up nearly 500% since the early 1980s as shown in this chart from the Justice Policy Institute Report "The Punishing Decade":
One would think that there has been a marked drop in crime considering the huge increase in the number of incarcerations; that is not necessarily the case. Here’s a chart of statistics taken from the United States Bureau of Justice website:
While the violent crime rate has dropped since it peaked in 1991, it is still at the same level that it was at back in 1974 when the rate of incarceration per capita was lower by half. The rate of non-violent crime is similar; it is now at the same level that it was at back in 1966. Something just doesn’t quite seem to be working.
I have no solutions to the problem of crime and punishment but it is apparent that throwing more people in jail and tossing away the key for a longer period of time is not necessarily the solution as seen int he example of the United States. Expediting the passage of the accused through the Canadian justice system would have eliminated at least some of the need for this specific legislation. Perhaps increasing the resources available to the judiciary and court system would have solved the two-for-one time credit issue for once and for all.
Sometimes, I think that it would be a good thing if government put a little more thought into solving society’s problems before popping out another piece of legislation. Occasionally the best solutions are the simplest ones. But I guess pumping a few hundred million dollars into the court system to allow for speedier trials just isn’t as appealing in the context of a "tough on crime" agenda as Bill C-25 is.
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