Ottawa Boosts Prison Budget

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hoping to put increased numbers of non-violent marijuana users behind bars with new crime legislation. Newly-released prison spending estimates show a 43 per cent increase in penitentiary capital costs next year, but the Harper government has refused to divulge a total tab for its initiatives to imprison more offenders, citing cabinet confidences.Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is hoping to put increased numbers of non-violent marijuana users behind bars with new crime legislation. Newly-released prison spending estimates show a 43 per cent increase in penitentiary capital costs next year, but the Harper government has refused to divulge a total tab for its initiatives to imprison more offenders, citing cabinet confidences.The head of Canada’s prison system says there will be “major construction initiatives” in the coming years to cope with federal legislation to imprison more offenders longer — an assertion backed by new spending estimates showing a 43 per cent increase in penitentiary capital costs next year.

Don Head, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, set the stage for prison expansion in a recent e-mail, obtained by Canwest News Service.

In a brief note to staff sent on Dec. 23, Head announced changes to the senior ranks of the prison system “to best prepare itself to implement many of the changes associated with several of the pieces of legislation that will result in a growth of our inmate population.”

The government has previously said it is only contemplating expanding existing facilities or building more prisons to handle an anticipated influx of federal offenders.

“Any conversation before has been general musing,” said Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland. “What this says to me is that they know what they are doing, they know what they are building — they are just refusing to let it go public.”

Critics have questioned the need for a prison-building boom in times of fiscal restraint and declining crime rates, particularly when they say there is no evidence that longer sentences work in cutting crime.

“This is basically pouring money down a rat hole,” said Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society.

He predicted the prison service is on the verge of becoming “the largest building contractor in Canada.”

Government spending estimates, released last week, show the prison system’s tab for capital expenditures for the coming fiscal year will increase 43 per cent, to $329.4 million in 2010-2011, from $230.8 million in 2009-2010.

Head’s e-mail does not specify whether the federal construction initiatives mean building more prisons or expanding existing ones.

But Christine Cversko, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said there are no plans to build new prisons, and that the money will be spent on “updating and improving” existing facilities.

“Our government is making decisions based on what we need to do in order to make our communities safe,” she said in an e-mail. “Releasing criminals onto our streets early has a much higher cost than keeping criminals behind bars.”

The government, in a written response last fall to a question posed by Holland, reported that the system “will be able to accommodate anticipated prison population within the existing infrastructure” in the short term, with the possible addition of portable facilities.

The government acknowledged, however, that the Correctional Service would “have to look to construct additional permanent accommodations” in the long term, including new units or institutions.

A 2007 report on prison reform, written by a government-appointed panel, called for the creation of new regional correctional facilities.

The Harper government has refused to divulge a total tab for its initiatives to imprison more offenders, citing cabinet confidences.

Kevin Page, the independent parliamentary budget officer who keeps an eye on federal spending, is calculating the cost at the urging of the opposition Liberals. A report is expected this spring.

The government has proposed or passed several pieces of legislation that would impose mandatory minimum jail terms for a variety of crimes.

One bill, which became law last month, would end a judicial practice of giving offenders a “two-for-one” credit on their sentences to compensate for time spent in pre-trial custody.

The government also has committed to introducing legislation to end “statutory release” after prisoners serve two-thirds of their sentences, in favour of earned parole tied to following a corrections plan.

Justin Piche, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, has conducted research showing the provinces are also on a building spree, with plans to inject more than $2.8 billion into expanding or renovating existing facilities, or building new ones.

– Article from The Montreal Gazette.

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