There's something I don't understand about us humans. We can cure disease, explore outer space, access information from around the world in a split second and discover the God particle, and yet the best idea we have come up with to respond to crime and social harm is to lock people in cages.
Our current government shows a particular zeal for the punitive, as evidenced by pretty much every aspect of their crime agenda.
On Wednesday, Vic Toews said "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." I think this statement is worth discussing.
First of all, Bill C-10, the Conservative government's sweeping omnibus crime bill, just received Royal Assent on March 12 of this year. Many of the legislative amendments that will expand the prison population (changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, mandatory minimums for drug offenses and the elimination of conditional sentences for a number of crimes) won't come into force until October/November.
As a result of backlogs in the courts, the average length of time between being arrested and going to trial is eight months. So of course there hasn't been a massive increase in prison populations...yet. It will take at least a year before the impact of this legislation can be accurately assessed. Either the Public Safety Minister is being intentionally deceptive, or he lacks a basic understanding of how the court system works. I'm not sure which one is more disturbing.
Second, Toews tries to dismiss legitimate concerns about the efficacy and necessity of the Harper crime agenda by calling them "predictions by our critics and opposition." Would Statistics Canada be considered the opposition? It only takes a quick visit to their website to see that the crime rate and the crime severity index have been dropping steadily in Canada since 1994. It's also important to remember that red flags have been raised about Harper's law and order tactics by people from all across the political spectrum.
The Canadian Bar Association, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and NUPGE (the union that represents federal prison guards) were among groups that spoke out against the new legislation.
In 2010, Don Head, the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, said that the Conservative crime agenda would cost $2 billion and lead to 4,478 extra federal prisoners over three years. Even Texas law enforcement officials warned our government against implementing harsher sentencing. When Texas thinks you're being too tough on crime, you know there's a problem.
In his statement Toews also implied that there would be no "untold new costs" as a result of the crime bill. He has touted the closure of Kingston Penitentiary and Leclerc Institution in Quebec as "cost-cutting measures," while at the same time insisting that the government has no plan to build new prisons.
This is somewhat disingenuous, since 2,700 new units are currently being built onto existing prisons in the Kingston area (at Millhaven, Bath and Collins Bay). Although the Public Safety Minister has not been forthcoming about the price tag for this construction, you can click here to see some of the companies who have been hired to do the work, and the cost of their contracts.
On the one hand the Conservatives are enacting legislation that will inevitably fill our already-crowded prisons to overflowing, and on the other hand they say they're not going to spend money on new prisons. These seem, at first glance, like irreconcilable positions. But when you consider that one of the largest lobbying groups behind C-10 is Geo Group Inc, a private prison company, it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to see where this is going.
Does anyone remember the Penetanguishene super-jail? It was opened as a private prison in 2001 and run by the Management and Training Corporation. Security issues, increased violence, high rates of recidivism, and substandard health care resulted in the prison being turned back over to the province after five years.
I was speaking to someone yesterday who said there was no way Harper would repeat this failed experiment. I am not so confident. Mandatory minimums (and harsh sentences in general) have been proven time and time again to have no deterrent effect on crime, but that has not stopped the government from ramming them through parliament in its omnibus bill. It seems clear that facts have no deterrent effect on Harper.