More Discussion Warranted on Conservative Government's Omnibus Crime Bill

Texas tried to do what Canada plans to do, and it failed. A state budget crush in 2005 forced Texas to take a hard look at its own justice policy. Texas had the highest incarceration rate in the US, with one in 20 of its adult residents behind bars or on parole or probation. Policy makers found that sending people to prison was costing ten times as much as putting them on probation, on parole, or in treatment.

Texas reversed a $2 billion plan to build new prisons and spent a fraction of that amount – about $300 million – on improved drug treatment programs, mental health centres, probation services, and community supervision for prisoners out on parole. The strategy worked: Costs fell and crime fell also. By strengthening some of the alternatives to prison, the rate of incarceration fell 9 percent between 2005 and 2010, while the crime rate fell by 12.8 percent.

A coalition of experts in Washington DC attacked the Harper government’s omnibus crime package, Bill C-10, in a statement early October.

Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute said, “Republican governors and state legislators in such states as Texas, South Carolina, and Ohio are repealing mandatory minimum sentences, increasing opportunities for effective community supervision, and funding drug treatment because they know it will improve public safety and reduce taxpayer costs. If passed, C-10 will take Canadian justice policies 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and Canadian citizens will bear the costs.”

Conservatives in Texas say the Harper government’s crime strategy won’t work. Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court states that billions and billions will be spent locking people up, but there will come a time when the public will say “That’s enough.” Representative Jerry Madden, a conservative Republican who heads the Texas House Committee on Corrections, says that building new prisons is extremely expensive, and if they are built, they will be filled. But if they are not built, innovative, creative strategies will evolve that keep the community safe and yet still do the incarceration necessary.

Even though crime in Canada is down to its lowest level since 1973, the Canadian government has increased the prison budget sharply. Federal spending on corrections in Canada has gone up from $1.6 billion in 2005-06 to $2.98 billion in 2010-11 – an increase of 86 percent. The budget for 2012-13 is $3.13 billion.

Prison sentences have already increased with the elimination of the two-for-one credit for time served waiting for trial. Bill C-10 would add new and longer sentences for drug offences, increase mandatory minimums, and cut the use of conditional sentences such as house arrest. In each of these aspects, Texas, as well as several other states, is doing the opposite.

Studies in Texas show that treatment and probation services cost about one-tenth the costs to build and run prisons. Besides, offenders emerge much less likely to commit fresh crimes than those with similar records who go to prison.

What this means for anyone interested in applying for a pardon is that the time to act is now. Any applications acknowledged and accepted by the Parole Board of Canada prior to the new legislation passing will be governed by the current laws. What is still unknown is exactly if and when the new legislation will take effect. The new legislation is currently before Parliament, but the timelines for passage and what the final version will look like remain to be seen.

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