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Let’s build opportunity, not prisons

Globe and Mail Published Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 7:30PM EST
With Canada poised to spend untold billions of dollars expanding its prison system, it’s worth looking at what else that money might buy in national projects that invest in the country’s most important capital, its people.

Assuming Canada had extra billions in a time of large deficits, consider the birth bond – a government investment to be made each time a child is born. The investment would be held until the child turns, say, 18, and then made available for postsecondary education or an apprenticeship program. Canada has 370,000 births a year. How much could it afford to put into an ambitious investment for each newborn, instead of into jail expansion?

It’s hard to know for sure, because the federal government has refused to provide a detailed costing for several major crime bills. For instance, the Truth in Sentencing Act, which ends the near-automatic, two-for-one discount given to convicted offenders for time served in jail before trial (i.e. a year behind bars is deemed to be two years). An independent analysis, done by Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, projected the additional costs as high as (or higher than) $5.1-billion a year, by 2015-16, for Ottawa and the provinces. The total annual cost of the nation’s corrections system could be $9.5-billion or more, instead of $4.4-billion (as of 2009-10).

If Mr. Page is right, Canada could seed an education account for each newborn with $13,783. Outlandish? Maybe, but it makes more sense than prison expansion, if the government is intent on spending an extra $5-billion. Canada wouldn’t need a birth bond, anyway; net tuition paid by all students is $3.5-billion a year. Instead of Truth in Sentencing, the country could afford Free in University, with change left over.

Let’s assume, for the moment, Mr. Page is wildly out of touch, as Ottawa claims. The federal government’s published budget estimates for federal corrections show an annual hike of $861-million – 36 per cent – by 2012-13 (compared with 2009-10). Now assume, conservatively, that the provincial costs rise by the same amount as a result of the federal crime bills. For that $1.722-billion extra a year, what could Canada do that is forward-looking, and has a long-term economic payoff?

It could pour resources into research. Currently, the government spends about $3-billion on the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Canada could take the $1.08-billion given to the CIHR each year and double it, and still have $700-million to spend on an enormous expansion of subsidies for master’s and PhD students.

Even if all of the government’s criminal justice bills were sensible, taken individually (and frankly, we have no philosophical objection to Truth in Sentencing), the costs need to be known and weighed, on their own merits and against other uses for that money.

If Canada has money for an expansion of the jails, which is doubtful, it should think instead about ambitious ways of investing in productivity and people.


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