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House passes billions of dollars in crime bills, doesn’t know full costs

By admin | May 29, 2010

House passes billions of dollars in crime bills, doesn’t know full costs

Published May 10, 2010

Parliament’s passing of a slew of a law and order bills that will bloat federal and provincial budgets to the tune of billions of dollars without first knowing how much they would cost is a “systemic failure,” says Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page.

Mr. Page will release a report this week on the massive costs of Bill C-25, a bill to limit credit given for time served in pre-sentencing custody, which is just one of more than a dozen pieces of legislation that makeup the government’s justice agenda. Most of the bills died on the Order Paper when Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) prorogued Parliament, but C-25 was one of the few that passed and last week Justice Minister Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.) reintroduced a bill to bring in mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics related offences.

The Tories, Liberals, and the NDP supported Bill C-25, with only the Bloc Québécois voting against it. The government’s drug bill, C-15, had the support of only the Tories and Grits. In an interview last week with The Hill Times, Mr. Page said Bill C-25 would swell prison populations, particularly in provincial penitentiaries since the new law, which came into force in February, would involve shorter prison terms.

“We’re talking about billions of dollars in terms of costs at the federal and provincial level, and that shouldn’t be a surprise because this will have a significant impact on the lengths of sentences and the headcount of people in the system. And we have a system that’s already very stretched, so we talk about building facilities, we’re talking about additional operation and maintenance expenditures, and to begin with it’s just expensive to incarcerate people,” said Mr. Page.

In 2007-08, the annual average cost of keeping one person incarcerated was $101,666. Under the old regime, the rationale behind giving prisoners two-for-one credit for time served before sentencing is that remand centres are often crowded and have worse conditions than facilities where people are sent after they’ve been convicted. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Provencher, Man.) said initially C-25 would cost the system $90-million over two years, and then ahead of Mr. Page’s report revised that figure to $2-billion over five years.

Mr. Page said he was “taken aback” by the government’s about-face on the costs of the measure, and said it concerns him that Parliamentarians on both sides of the House of Commons leapt into this without having adequate financial information.

“We certainly hope that Parliamentarians use financial information when they’re having policy debates,” he said.

The PBO conducted its study at the request of Liberal MP Mark Holland (Ajax-Pickering, Ont.) and although this report looks at only C-25, Mr. Page is expected to examine the projected costs of other aspects of the Harper government’s aggressive law and order agenda. He said he didn’t get much cooperation from the government in obtaining information, and so he had to enlist the help of a peer review panel of experts to devise complex accounting models. Mr. Page added, however, that now that the PBO has done the accounting modelling once, future reports into the expenditures involved with justice legislation should move much faster.

Unlike Bill C-25, which is already enshrined into law, the Liberals will get a second chance on whether to support the government’s drug bill, which was reintroduced in the Senate last Wednesday. The bill, now called S-10, would bring in mandatory minimum sentences for people caught with as few as six marijuana plants. In the last session of Parliament Liberal Senators put forward amendments to the bill that would remove mandatory minimums for those caught with between six and 200 plans, only if no aggravating factors apply, such as if the cannabis plants were produced for the purpose of trafficking, if there were weapons used or found, the production created a danger to the public in a residential area, or the property of a third party (a rental unit) was used in the offence. The justice minister said the amendments “gutted” the bill, and the are not included in the reintroduced legislation.

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes were overwhelmingly panned as being ineffective, and in some cases were found to aggravate the problem by driving more business into the hands of organized crime, in House and Senate committees examining Bill C-15, as well as in numerous reports by the Department of Justice, the Senate, and other organizations. Liberal MPs have said publicly the reason they voted for the measure was out of fear of being labeled “soft on crime” by the Conservatives.

“There is a political judgment being made here,” said Manitoba Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs, a member of the Senate committee that is studying the bill. “Not the full story gets out about crime in this country. Crime statistics are actually going down, but the popular image is that crime is going up. So if you’re an elected Parliamentarian and you choose to vote against a crime measure it looks as if you’re supporting crime and that of course is a gross misinterpretation.”

Sen. Carstairs said she is disappointed her colleagues in the House of Commons are not standing up for young people who could be affected by the law.

“I am very much opposed to hard drugs, I am opposed to trafficking, but I believe that to criminalize young people for being caught with minimal amounts of marijuana thereby giving them a sentence with which they have to live for the rest of their life is unconscionable,” she said.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee was reconstituted to reflect that the Tories now have a plurality in the Upper Chamber following the prorogation of Parliament, and therefore Sen. Carstairs said any amendments the Liberals propose are likely to be defeated at the committee. She said she expects the amendments to the narcotics bill to be reintroduced in the Senate Chamber, however, and barring some “startling testimony” it’s likely Senators on either side will vote the same way they did last time.

Ontario Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, a long-time advocate for tougher law and order legislation and a former provincial minister of public safety and security, said Canadians are frustrated with “revolving door justice” and therefore will support the government’s initiatives even if they cost a lot.

“I don’t think it will be hard sell because from my own observation over the years this is something that the public by and large agree with, and they think it is an appropriate use of tax dollars,” he said. “Hopefully it’s an effective message to those who work in the judiciary, not just the judges but the crown and others, that people are increasingly fed up with the way the system operates and we’ve got to find ways to make it more effective, and more efficient, and ensure it’s doing the best job possible to improve public safety.”

Mr. Holland, the Liberal Party’s public safety critic, said his caucus has not yet decided whether to continue supporting the narcotics bill when it returns to the House of Commons, and he didn’t rule out “revisiting” C-25 now that the full costs of the initiative are known. He said the PBO report into the astronomical costs of the government’s law and order agenda changes the debate.

“When someone is told it’s only going to cost $90-million it’s not difficult to get Canadians to support it, but when you find out that it’s going to cost billions of dollars then suddenly you’re having a different debate,” he said.

Mr. Holland said the work of the PBO would help shift the discourse about justice issues more into the realm of evidence, and Parliamentarians would be more informed when deciding whether to support the government’s law and order bills as they are reintroduced.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re actually just thinking before we pass these bills,” he said.

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