Stephen Harper continued his party's focus on anti-crime proposals Tuesday, saying a re-elected Conservative government would amend the Criminal Code to ensure serious indictable crimes are not eligible for conditional house arrest sentences.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion attacked Harper's plan at a town hall event at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday night, saying Harper's proposal would cost Canadian taxpayers $2.2 billion.

"You will have more crowded jails than ever," Dion said. "People will leave these jails one day, and the number of re-offending crimes will go up, and Canada will not be safer."

"This strategy failed the United States. It will fail in Canada," Dion said.

Harper's announcement comes a day after the Conservative leader's pledge that young people 14 and over convicted of crimes such as manslaughter, murder or aggravated assault would face tougher sentences, and no longer have their identities protected.

Speaking in Saskatchewan, Harper said his government's past attempts to end house arrest were thwarted by the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc Québécois during the last session of Parliament.

"Unlike the opposition parties, we don’t believe that house arrest is a suitable punishment for those who commit these kinds of crimes, and Canadians don’t believe it, either," Harper said during an appearance in Saskatoon while campaigning for the Oct. 14 federal election.

The Conservatives say more than 11,150 criminals were serving conditional sentences in 2006, including 2,791 convicted of violent crimes.

Measures 'restore balance': Harper

Harper said crimes the Conservatives would make ineligible for house arrest include:

  • Serious property crimes, such as robbery, auto theft, breaking and entering, and arson.
  • Weapons offences, such as possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose.
  • Serious vehicular crimes, such as impaired driving causing bodily harm or death.
  • Drug trafficking, kidnapping and trafficking in persons.

When asked how many new jail cells would be needed, Harper said the number is "not enormous" and the cost would be "small and manageable."

Harper also dismissed questions by reporters over concerns by some criminologists and police who say the Tories' previously announced measures are heavy-handed and wouldn't make Canada any safer.

"Yes, we believe they're wrong," Harper said. "We're listening to ordinary people, not people who work in ivory towers, but people who actually work on the street and deal with crime on a day-to-day basis."

Studies in the U.S. have shown that the states with the toughest prison sentences had the least success in driving down crime rates in the 1990s. One result of longer sentences is costlier prisons that absorb resources that could otherwise be spent on more police officers or crime-prevention programs.

Harper, who has acknowledged that crime rates have fallen in many areas in recent years, said his party is pursuing the measures "to restore balance to a system that had been getting progressively more unbalanced for over 30 years.

"Our party believes that the foundation of our criminal justice system should not be the welfare of criminals, but rather, the protection of honest, hard-working citizens and their families," he said.

"We believe that offenders do have rights, but they also have responsibilities, and that victims also have rights."

With files from the Canadian Press