Reality Check

The cost of being tough on crime

Sat, 30 Apr 2011 09:54:07 -0500

The Conservatives have used their so-called tough-on-crime agenda to drive a wedge between themselves and their political opponents.


Not surprisingly, the Liberals, Bloc and NDP reject the label that they are "soft on crime," with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in turn accusing the Harper government of being "dumb on crime."


But finding epithets with which to tar a political opponent seems easier than formulating a coherent policy. Consider what's on offer, particularly the costs.


First, the Conservatives


The government's Truth in Sentencing Act, which received assent in the fall of 2009, will keep criminals behind bars much longer. That's because they will no longer receive as much credit for the time spent in pre-sentence custody.


The government estimates the new law will add about $2.1 billion over five years to the federal treasury.


But the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, says the bill will be at least twice as much over the same period, including an additional $689 million a year in maintenance and operational costs. 


The NDP, Liberals and the Bloc have all criticized the incarceration costs associated with the government's crime bills, with Ignatieff recently accusing the government of importing "failed American polices."


Yet the Liberals still voted for the Truth in Sentencing Act (C-25), which critics find contradictory and difficult to understand. Especially as the government has not exactly overwhelmed its critics with concrete evidence.


Consider the following exchange between Rob Nicholson, the justice minister, and the NDP's Libby Davies in 2009 on the proposal to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for drug offences, a bill that is still outstanding.


Nicholson: "It's been a long time, Ms. Davies, since we've had a number of these mandatory penalties here, but we're absolutely convinced, from our consultation with Canadians, that this is exactly what Canadians want us to do."

Davies: "Do you have evidence?"

Nicholson: "We have the evidence that Canadians have told us that."

Davies: "Any studies?"

Nicholson: "With respect to resources, I can tell you that this bill is welcomed across this country. You can check with the attorneys general in British Columbia and other jurisdictions."

Davies: "I take it you have no evidence, though, about mandatory minimums."

Nicholson: "You have to send out a strong message to the people who are in the business of destroying these things there. We have the mandate of the Canadian people."


The NDP plan, more police


For its part, however, the NDP also faces challenges producing evidence for its crime-fighting proposals.


During the English-language leaders' debate, Jack Layton talked about hiring 2,500 police officers as a "current" fix in the battle against crime. This, despite the fact that there is little evidence that putting more officers on the streets actually reduces crime.


What's more, a Statistics Canada report called Police Resources in Canada, 2010, makes it clear that the number of police officers is already on the rise, up 11.5 per cent over the decade in the number of officers per 1,000 population.


And yet, during the same time period, the overall crime rate has been decreasing.


As Statistics Canada put it: "At the same time that police officer strength has been increasing, the volume and the severity of police-reported crime have been on the decline.


"Both the 2009 police-reported crime rate and the Crime Severity Index decreased from the previous year, in keeping with a general trend observed over the past decade.


"In addition, the 2009 national weighted clearance rate rose to 38.4 per cent, the fifth consecutive annual increase. The clearance rate represents the proportion of crimes that are solved by police."


What would the Liberals do?


The NDP and the Bloc voted against Bill C-15, which died on the order paper at the end of 2009 when Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament for the first time.


What was surprising was that the Liberals initially supported the bill and then did an about-face at the end of the most recent session when it announced it would not be backing the bill in its renamed version (S-10).


The Liberals criticized the government for failing to come clean about the price tag, which in light of the Parliamentary Budget Officer's estimates, is a fair concern.


But apart from attacking the government's plans to put more people behind bars, the Liberals fail to spell out what they would do to deal with crime, and how much they'd pay for it.


"No one disagrees that criminals must be punished," the party says in its election platform.

"But more prisons alone will not make our communities safer and stronger. That approach has failed in the U.S. Evidence and experience suggest it will take much more than prisons."


Though there has been a lot of talk about crime, prisons, price tags and police, there's been a lack of coherent discussion about realistic proposals to deal with the problem. This makes if difficult for voters to decipher which party has the best plan.


This is a shame because crime and punishment have been studied extensively. European countries experiment with progressive strategies. The U.S. on the other hand appears to be backtracking from many of the kinds of initiatives the Conservatives are championing.


So given the amount of time, energy and money experts around the world have spent putting crime under a microscope, it's unclear why Canadians have been offered such little insight into a problem that all parties claim that voters are very concerned about.


You can reach David McKie at


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