For Harper Tories, Prison Spending Trumps Seniors

The Harper government is prioritizing new prison spending over maintaining seniors’ retirement benefits, for reasons known only to itself.

It’s a puzzling choice. If real benefits were to be achieved as a result of the additional billions being put toward incarceration, the choice would make more sense.

But, as a warning letter last week from a group of U.S. law enforcers advised Canada’s senators, there will be no payoff.

This, when Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has just confirmed the upcoming federal budget will outline age-based eligibility delays to Old Age Security, for even the neediest seniors.

Elderly single women likely will bear the brunt of any Conservative move to delay OAS eligibility to 67.

The reason for the adjustment: to ensure declining numbers of working-age people won’t be unduly burdened by the needs of an expanding number of retiring boomers.

So should those same younger people be burdened by an ever-larger prisoner population, more than a third of whom are believed to be mentally impaired, and a disproportionate number of whom are aboriginal?

Keeping one prisoner in a federal penitentiary costs taxpayers $88,000 annually.

According to parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page’s analysis of the Conservatives’ omnibus crime legislation, prison costs are set to rise from $4.4 billion in 2011 to $9.5 billion by 2015-16. Page issued a report Tuesday stating a single federal measure restricting conditional sentences for offenders will cost provinces and territories more than $100 million a year.

Stephen Harper recently defended the spending: “We received a clear mandate to proceed with strengthening our criminal justice system, to make sure those who commit serious crime do appropriate prison time.”

When Conservatives came to power in 2006, cor-rections costs were $1.6 billion a year.

The prison spending spree is all the more inexplicable given falling crime rates.

Keep in mind, much of the extra prison spending will fall on provinces, which are trying desperately to balance their budgets (as is Ottawa).

It doesn’t make sense to lock up folks who are more in need of mental health services, or aboriginals who’d be better served by rehab programs, or pot dealers.

The Maryland-based group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition last week warned Ottawa against emulating the U.S.’s punitive approach to drug offenders in particular.

The group, which includes judges, chiefs of police and prosecutors, favours taxation and regulation of marijuana. It frowns on Harper’s plan for mandatory minimum sentences for minor pot offences.

Calling the U.S. war on drugs “a costly failure” that boosted organized crime and gang violence, the letter follows one publicized earlier this month from four former B.C. attorneys general who also called for the legalization of cannabis.

In a news release accompanying the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition letter, Seattle’s retired police chief, Norm Stamper, said the Conservatives’ plan for tougher sentencing laws will only “help fill jails.” The U.S. is now more progressive than Canada on pot policy, the letter asserts, with 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, having laws allowing medical use of cannabis. Fourteen states have decriminalized pot possession.

Initiatives to tax and regulate pot are likely to appear this fall on ballots in Washington state, Colorado and California.

Of course, drug offenders are only one part of the prison puzzle.

No one is arguing pedophiles and murderers shouldn’t be locked up, only that the government’s broad-brush approach is too generalized. And too costly at a time when seniors’ benefits are being cut.

But then, the Harper team’s view of it doubtless would be: Taxpayers are either with the Conservatives or with the crooks.

– Article from Calgary Herald.