Pubdate: Thu, 01 Mar 2012
Source: StarPhoenix, The (CN SN)
Copyright: 2012 The StarPhoenix
Author: Barbara Yaffe


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

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 American 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.

Keeping one prisoner in a federal penitentiary costs taxpayers $88,000
annually. So, should those same younger people be burdened by an
ever-larger prisoner population, more than a third of whom are
believed mentally impaired, and a disproportionate number of whom are

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 that 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, corrections 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 Marylandbased 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. attorneysgeneral who also
called for the legalization of cannabis.

In a news release accompanying the LEAP 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 LEAP letter asserts, with
16 states, plus the District of Columbia, having laws allowing medical
use of cannabis. Four-teen 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.

(This week, The Canadian Press reported that the Global Commission on
Drug Policy, a group that includes former Supreme Court Justice Louise
Arbour and the former leaders of Brazil and Switzerland, is also
calling on Harper to stop what they call the "destructive, expensive
and ineffective" war on drugs.)

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.
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MAP posted-by: Matt