OTTAWA – It’s Take 2 of the Harper government’s crackdown on house arrest – a move rival MPs say they’ll block as wrong-headed policy that will pack already stressed provincial jails.
On Monday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduced the latest Tory effort to curtail conditional sentences for “serious property and violent crime.”
“These amendments show that the government has remained firm in its determination to make sure that those who commit serious crimes serve time behind bars,” he said.
The legislation would change the Criminal Code to further restrict crimes for which sentences can be served at home or in a halfway house under a range of conditions.
Such sentences were introduced in 1996 to give judges leeway for offenders serving less than two years in jail. Longer sentences are served in federal prison.
Under the Conservative plan, people convicted of arson, drug production or trafficking, theft over $5,000, auto theft and breaking-and-entering, would no longer be eligible for house arrest.
The impact would inevitably be felt in provincial jails where sentences of less than two years are served.
Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and New Democrat MPs teamed up the last time the Conservatives proposed such changes. They collectively struck off about three-quarters of the crimes that would have become ineligible for conditional sentences, including non-violent drug and auto-theft offences.
The bill was never passed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper vented his frustration with opposition meddling during the last federal election.
“Unlike the opposition parties, we don’t believe that house arrest is a suitable punishment for those who commit these kinds of crimes – and Canadians don’t believe it, either,” he said last September when he first promised to bring back the bill.
Joe Comartin, justice critic for the NDP, said the legislation could add at least 5,000 more inmates to provincial jails.
In Ontario, it costs about $52,000 a year to lock up offenders compared to about $1,600 for those under house arrest. Convicts under electronic supervision cost closer to $3,200.
It has been estimated that the Tory plan would cost more than $300 million a year just in extra incarceration costs.
Harper has called any related spike “small and manageable” but has provided no detailed funding figures, Comartin said Monday.
“That was the reason why we took out so many of the crimes … that they had put in the bill in 2006,” Comartin said.
“There were silly ones … where there was no violence involved, no serious crime quite frankly. So we deleted a whole bunch of those. We’ll attempt to do the same with these.”
Comartin said eliminating conditional sentences for relatively minor drug crimes that draw less than a two-year sentence would “dramatically” swell provincial jail numbers.
The opposition will try to delete those drug crimes from the legislation along with theft over $5,000 and auto theft, he said.
Elizabeth Elliott, a specialist in conditional sentencing and restorative justice at Simon Fraser University, says B.C. jails are already over-crowded.
“They have to build another one somewhere. And of course the big debate is, where?”
Taxpayers foot the bill while Ottawa essentially downloads the cost to provinces, she said.
“It allows the reigning federal government to sort of enjoy, although I have no idea why, … being tough, and actually not have to pick up the cost for it.
“It’s frustrating to sit on the sidelines and wonder where the research is that drives these new policy initiatives, because I don’t see it.”
Harper has repeatedly dismissed a long line of critics and criminologists who say lock-’em-up policies cost a bundle with little impact on crime rates.
“It’s not courageous. It’s not creative,” Elliott said of the all-partisan tendency to court easy public support with crackdowns.
She is among many criminologists calling for more community-based prevention programs that get at poverty, child neglect and other root causes of crime.
“We know so many things that we can do that will make a difference for actual people on the ground.
“There’s a rational and logical use for incarceration. But we’re using it to mindlessly punish.”