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Canadians can point to many decisions made by politicians that have used taxpayers’ money with little or no resulting benefit.

B.C.’s fast ferries debacle of the 1990s cost provincial taxpayers more than $400-million. Montreal’s Mirabel Airport was dubbed “one of the great white elephants of aeronautics history” by The New York Times.

Bill C-10, dubbed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which the federal government passed on Monday, could potentially waste billions of Canadian taxpayer dollars. At a time when promised corporate tax reductions have been shelved in B.C., and with Ontario actively considering cancellation of its own planned corporate tax cut, businesses big and small, together with their associations and representatives, should be very concerned.

In fairness, some of Bill C-10’s provisions may be long overdue and supportable, such as getting tougher with sexual predators and those who would exploit children, and increasing certain sentences for organized drug crime.

But other provisions will come at a huge cost, and they will require program spending cuts or tax increases to fund new initiatives that many policing, justice and corrections professionals believe are inefficient and ineffective ways to deter and punish criminal behaviour.

Bill C-10 calls for mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences, necessitating the construction and staffing of new prisons to house new inmates. For example, the bill calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of nine months for anyone found growing six or more marijuana plants in a rented premises, and could impose the same sentence for someone caught simply sharing a joint, which might be considered trafficking, even if no money was paid.

Four former attorney generals of British Columbia have gone on the record stating that the criminalization of marijuana is bad policy. Former B.C. Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant stated to this newspaper: “I have always had a problem with the idea that the state should criminalize an act which is essentially no more complex than putting a couple of seeds in your back yard, waiting a while and then, when something grows, you put it in your pocket, you chew it or you smoke it.”

The criminalization of marijuana is an example of the law of unintended consequences: “What has happened,” Mr. Plant said, “is that … the prohibition of cannabis is not just an ineffective policy, but is having the effect of increasing certain harms, as organized crime increasingly relies on the cannabis trade to support its activities, to make huge profits and to fight with each other with guns increasingly in public over their market share.”

Despite this, Bill C-10 will require a mandatory prison sentence of nine months for six or more pot plants that could theoretically be grown inside your son or daughter’s student dorm room. The minimum penalty for sexually touching a person under 16 is between 14 and 45 days, depending on whether the accused is charged summarily or by way of indictment. Does this sound like a federal government that has its priorities straight?

Even British billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson has waded into the Bill C-10 fray: “It just means that politicians are going to be punishing young people and putting young people in prison … Why punish the young? The way I’d like to talk to a politician, ‘if it was your son … would you recommend prison?’ And none of them would,” he said. “Horrendous things happen in prison.”

A recent study by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Bill C-10: The Truth About Consequences, was very critical of the cost of additional incarceration for certain lesser offences where it was not deemed necessary or beneficial. “Jail time will increase through the restrictions on conditional sentences and the additional mandatory minimum sentences. This punitive approach has been widely used – and subsequently rejected – in both the United States and Great Britain over the last 35 years,” the study said.

In quoting Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, it reads: “Republican governors and state legislators in such states of 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.”

What does it cost to incarcerate someone? A lot. The operating cost is extremely expensive, “costing anywhere from $65,000 to $130,000 a year to house a single inmate,” the study points out. “These are just the operating costs – rising inmate populations mean increased capital expenditures as well.”

The federal government has not indicated how much Bill C-10 will cost, and provincial governments are concerned because the expense of these new laws would be “offloaded” to them (the provinces are constitutionally responsible for the administration of justice).

At a time when public service unions such as B.C.’s teachers are striking for more money, and as public health expenditures continue to rise across the country, it’s the provinces that will have to cut spending or raise taxes as a result of the billions of extra dollars required to fund Bill C-10 amendments.

The Ontario government has determined Bill C-10 will increase the caseload for police and for probation and parole officers. It could add up to 1,500 additional inmates to provincial prisons by 2016, and require the construction of a new 1,000-bed prison at a cost of more than $900 million. More police officers will be conducting investigations and in court giving evidence instead of patrolling streets. Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur has stated: “Our government believes in community safety and crime prevention but it is unacceptable that Ontarians are expected to bear the cost of federal anti-crime initiatives. If they talk tough on crime, they should be willing to pay for the cost.”

Quebec Minister of Justice Jean-Marc Fournier has said the province will not pay for new prisons and other costs required to enforce Bill C-10. Mr. Fournier has said he believes enforcing the bill would cost Quebec an additional $500 million to $600 million, and an additional $75 million to $100 million a year.

In Manitoba, the John Howard Society has calculated that Bill C-10 will cost that province an additional $60 million a year in operating expenses, plus $30 million in capital expenses.

But perhaps the most revealing comment comes from Mr. Plant.

“Mandatory minimum sentences make for a great ‘tough on crime’ message but in fact they don’t work,” he said. “They encourage plea bargains to lesser offences, and make for much longer trials in other cases. Everyone in the justice system knows this, but unfortunately for taxpayers, the Conservatives think they know better. My prediction is that Bill C-10 will become for the Conservatives what the gun registry law was for the federal Liberals. Massive cost, without any benefit.

“They’ve made it such a key part of their agenda that its failure will count for much more than they even imagine. Bill C-10 will just download costs on the provinces without any corresponding improvement in public safety. All cost, no benefit.”

Add to this an underfunded legal aid system, an underfunded justice system – often without enough judges to deal with the cases currently before them – and you have a recipe for a very expensive train wreck.

The business community should be very concerned when it comes to how its tax dollars are spent.

Tony Wilson – Globe and Mail – March 13, 2012

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