Provinces bear rising justice costs, budget watchdog finds

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page's final report says per capita spending on criminal justice has climbed 23 per cent over the past decade. But while the federal government sets justice policy, it's the provinces who pay two-thirds of the cost for jails, courts and policing.

Cost of jails, courts and policing up 23% in last decade, amid drop in crime rate

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page's final report reveals that almost three quarters of rising jail, court and policing costs are carried by the provinces, even though it's the federal government that sets justice policy. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Per capita spending on criminal justice — including federal and provincial jails, court costs and policing — has climbed 23 per cent over the last decade even as the crime rate fell 23 per cent, says a new study by the Parliamentary budget office.

The report, a first-of-its kind, comprehensive look at criminal justice costs over time, put the price tag at $20.3 billion in 2011-12.

The authors looked at direct public spending on policing, courts and corrections, including parole. They excluded costs such as victims compensation, private security and non-criminal matters such as family, environmental and competition law.

Almost $15 billion of the total last year, or 73 per cent, was carried by the provinces and municipalities.

"It is important to note that in Canada, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction to make criminal law, unlike the United Sates where each state has this power," the study states.

"With regards to the enforcement of criminal law, it is the responsibility of the provinces and territories."

The Conservative government has been on a seven-year push to increase sentences and introduce new laws, citing its own internal study that claims crime costs victims $100 billion a year in Canada.

Toews concerned about policing costs

In January, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews warned a policing conference in Ottawa that rising police costs cannot be maintained.

"A decade ago, the average Canadian readily accepted, almost without question, steady increases in police budgets," Toews told the conference in a prepared speech.

"Today, however, there are increasing calls to demonstrate the value of the investments that all governments make in public services, including policing."

The budget office report released Wednesday shows a direct correlation between Prime Minister Stephen Harper taking office in 2006 and a jump in criminal justice spending, both in Ottawa and elsewhere.

Crime rates, meanwhile, have been on a steady decline since 2003 — a trend the office says it included in the report "for illustrative purposes only."

"This paper is not policy advice," the authors state.

That didn't forestall a heated policy debate over the report in the House of Commons.

Nicholson defends record

NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin said costs are "sky-rocketing" — and landing on provincial ledgers — even though the crime rate was already on the way down when the Harper government came to power.

"This report proves the Conservative crime agenda is more about photo ops and partisanship than getting results," she charged.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson responded that his government "makes no apologies for cracking down on crime," adding the Conservatives have introduced 30 pieces of legislation on the file since 2006.

Nicholson said the "cost of crime is borne by victims; that's the side (New Democrats) are never on."

Bob Rae, the Liberal interim leader, also waded in, saying in a release the report confirms "what Liberals have long suspected about this government's so-called 'tough on crime' agenda: that it is, in fact, tough on taxpayers."

Final report before Page exit

The report is the last to be released under the watch of Kevin Page, Parliament's first fiscal watchdog whose eventful five-year term ends Monday.

Provincial security and court costs, as well as federal corrections costs all climbed by more than 40 per cent between 2002 and 2012, while federal security costs rose 53 per cent, the study said.

Policing costs were "relatively flat" before beginning a steady climb in 2007, the same year corrections costs reversed course and began rising. Court costs — including judges, prosecutors, legal aid and youth justice — had been decreasing, but started up again in 2006, although they still haven't reached 2002 levels.

Court costs shifted toward the provinces and territories and off Ottawa over the study period.

In 2002, the federal government carried 32 per cent of criminal court costs, but that had fallen to 22 per cent by 2012. The provincial share, meanwhile rose 10 points to 78 per cent.

Provincial incarceration rates were also on the rise, while federal rates actually fell, the report said.