WINNIPEG - Canada's prison population has not exploded, contrary to opposition critics' dire predictions about the government's anti-crime laws, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Wednesday.
The number of inmates in federal prisons as of June 30 stood at 14,965, Toews said, almost 3,000 below the level predicted for this year in 2009 by the Corrections Service of Canada and far below what the opposition in Parliament has been warning.
"The influx of new inmates has simply not materialized," Toews said in Winnipeg.
"Contrary to predictions by our critics and the opposition, we have not seen the so-called substantive increase in offenders swamping the correctional system and creating untold new costs."
The Conservative government has faced accusations that its tough-on-crime agenda, which includes more mandatory minimum sentences and longer sentences for some offences, will cause a boom in the inmate population that would require new prisons to be built.
Instead, the government is shutting down two older prisons — Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario and the Leclerc prison north of Montreal — and scrapping any plans to build new facilities.
That means the government will save $1.5 billion over the next seven years by foregoing capital spending requested by the department, Toews said.
The NDP dismissed Toews' comments as premature. They pointed out many of the anti-crime measures were only approved by Parliament this spring.
"They just got royal assent, so we still have to wait for the increase in the (prison) population. We're going to have to wait a few years and we're going to see it," Rosane Doré Lefebvre, the NDP's deputy critic of public safety, said from Ottawa.
"People are going to stay longer in the prisons with those bills and you're going to have more and more."
Some provincial governments are also concerned. Ontario and Quebec, among others, have said the number of inmates in jails, which are provincially run, could increase and drive up costs.
Manitoba has already seen its adult jail population jump to 2,415 from 1,678 since 2008. It has expanded capacity at a women's jail west of Winnipeg and will enlarge jails in Milner Ridge and The Pas later this year.
While the federal prison population this year is lower than expected, officials point out the number of people behind bars is still growing.
Howard Sapers, who fields complaints from federal inmates as his job as Canada's correctional investigator, has said some 1,000 extra inmates have been added to the system in recent years.
The government has already promised to add 2,700 new beds to existing facilities to ease over-crowding.