The Conservative government's planned series of reforms to the criminal justice system could cost tens of billions of dollars based on the estimated cost of just one of them — as calculated by the parliamentary budget officer.

Last week, the Tories introduced four crime-related bills in Parliament.

One would kill the so-called faint hope clause that allows some people serving life sentences to apply for parole after 15 years (instead of the usual 25 common for first-degree murder and other life sentence convictions).

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Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, seen testifying in November, had a team spend six months tallying the cost of the government's elimination of two-for-one credit in sentencing. ((Reuters))

Another would revive two highly contentious parts of the Anti-terrorism Act that were subject to sunset clauses in the original legislation and are no longer in force. The changes would allow police to detain suspects without charge in terrorism investigations and could force people to testify at secret terrorism-related hearings. 

A third bill would institute minimum jail terms for certain offences, including arson, counterfeiting and extortion.

Opposition parties have asked the government for an estimate of how much the reforms — with the resulting longer jail sentences, detentions without charge and other consequences — will cost.

While a total figure has yet to be tabulated, parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page says just one government initiative, the elimination of two-for-one sentencing credit for time served in pre-trial custody, will cost between $7 billion and $10 billion over the next five years.

Two-for-one credit allows criminals to get two years taken off their sentence for every one that they were detained leading up to their sentencing. It is a common judicial practice meant to provide some compensation for the conditions of pre-trial detention, during which people do not have access to the services regular prisoners do, and the delay in bringing a case to trial.

Page's complex investigation into the budget implications of the elimination of two-for-one sentencing is expected to be made public early next week.

Sources familiar with the document told The Canadian Press that the study concludes the provinces will have to pick up about three-quarters of the costs while Ottawa will cover the rest.

Government likely to contest Page's analysis

The report is likely to provoke a showdown between Page's office and the government. Ottawa has always maintained that much of the increased cost of longer jail terms could be absorbed by shuffling prisoners to prisons that have extra space or by more double-bunking — the practice of putting two prisoners in one cell.

Critics call that practice "chicken-caging" and say it would be a betrayal of Canada's international commitments to maintain certain standards in the correctional system.

In an interview Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged the government doesn't have a precise idea of how much the legislation will end up costing.

"We're not exactly sure how much it will cost us," Toews said. "There are some low estimates, and some that would see more spent — not more than $90 million."

Toews said that amount has been set aside over this year and next to implement the law at the federal level and expand existing facilities if need be.

The provinces should not see any increase in costs, Toews said, noting that the impetus for the legislation came mainly from provincial attorneys-general.

Cutting credit for time served will be costly

The change in sentencing credit, known as Bill C-25, took effect in February after Prime Minister Stephen Harper filled five vacant Senate seats with loyal Conservatives to make sure the legislation would pass.

An earlier version of the bill, introduced before Harper prorogued Parliament last December at a time when the upper chamber had a slim Liberal majority, died in the Senate. 

Under the new law, judges are required to count the time spent in pre-trial as straight time served, in most cases. As a result, many criminals will likely be in prison far longer than before, putting a strain on infrastructure and tight budgets.

The practical effects of the legislation have never been thoroughly examined in public. The government has refused to release its internal analysis of the impact of the reform on prison populations and correctional budgets.

"It's always difficult to estimate what the impact is going to be," Toews said.

"Quite frankly, I'm not so sure that there will be a significant increase in our [prison] population."

According to the parliamentary budget officer's analysis, the $90 million set aside by Ottawa for the reform will not be nearly enough to cover the resulting costs.

Page devoted a third of his staff and six months to building statistical models to estimate the financial impact of the sentencing change and had outside experts assess the results.

The Bill C-25 cost estimate was requested by Liberal MP Mark Holland after The Canadian Press revealed last fall that the costs could be large and that MPs passed the legislation without the benefit of a government cost estimate.

"It's going to show that the costs involved are mind-boggling," Holland said in an interview.

With files from The Canadian Press