The Hill: Doing the math on 2-for-1

In the old James Cagney movies, there were always two prisoners to a cell. One was in the top bunk, the other in the bottom.

That was called double-bunking, meaning two bunks to a cell, not two prisoners to a bed, which is not always fun for the little guy.

They usually got along fine until Cagney shouts, “You dirty rat” at his cellmate.
It was great stuff for the movies, not in real life.

Double-bunking was finally abolished in the Canadian penal system in 2001. The government, in its euphemistic style, declared that “single-occupancy accommodation is the most desirable and correctionally appropriate method.”

But Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who likes old movies, wants to take us back to the days of double-bunking.   
”Double-bunking is not a big deal,” said Toews. That was three weeks ago.

The next day, half of the 54 federal penitentiaries announced they are going back to double-bunking, just like in Victorian times.
Double-bunking can also be a great way to make new friends.

Critics disagree, arguing it’s more likely to promote violence among cellmates.
Still, it’s a lot less expensive than building new penitentiaries, according to Toews.

Toews has a big problem because, last October, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government passed a new law that took away the rights of judges to hand out two-for-one credit for time already served in jail before sentencing.

Two-for-one credit supposedly makes up for harsher conditions in remand and pre-sentence jails.
Eliminating the extra credit is part of the Conservative government’s crime agenda.

It’s part of an ideology based on the premise that putting more people in jail and keeping them locked up longer will make Canada a safer place. Increasing jail time by wiping out the double credit is one way to do it.

They have great lines, including the one about “truth in sentencing.”
It’s as if the judges haven’t been telling the truth when they give out two-for-one credits. But now they will have to tell the truth.

The opposition parties caved in on the vote, lest the Conservatives call an election and win a majority.
Now as the prisons start to fill up, Toews has to find spaces.

More bunks, not more jails, are Toews’ answers.
It will cost only $2 billion over five years, he says.

But he hasn’t provided a published report detailing the numbers, so he can’t say how he came up with his $2-billion figure. Maybe he has the same accountants who at one time put the cost of the Harper summits at only $179 million.

Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, says Toews is way off. It’s going to cost at least $5 billion, he said last week.
The provinces will be paying another $5 billion more themselves for the increase in prisoners in their jails.

In Canada, convicts receiving sentences of less than two years serve them in provincial facilities. Those handed harsher punishments go to federal penitentiaries.

Page and Toews don’t agree. For his part, Page put out a 500-page report on the issue last week, the work of one-third of his staff for eight months.

Page estimates the new law wiping out double credit will add, on average, about half of a year to every sentence. He has the average sentence in federal prisons increasing to 722 days, up from 563 days currently.

Page says that works out to $1 billion a year for five years.
Page couldn’t care less about the ideology behind increasing jail time. That’s a political thing. He’s a bean counter, the best we have. He’s concerned that the public gets the right numbers.

That’s his job. Fudging figures to make government policies look more attractive is not his way of doing things.
The provinces are going to be hit harder than the federal government because “their head count” is twice as big, says Page.

Provinces get all the remand inmates and those jailed for less than two years. That works out to 260,000 inmates a year, compared to 8,500 for the federal institutions.
Toews put the issue delicately: “There will be some cost to the provinces.”

”Some cost” is right, about $5 billion over five years in extra costs, says Page.
Toews replied: “Costs will all be done within the fiscal framework.”
That’s a euphemism for saying the costs will be downloaded onto the provinces.

Toews explained the federal costs will be “taken out of future budgets.” That’s true, but he doesn’t point out that Harper already has a deficit this year.

Budgets are not the Conservative government’s strong suit. It took over four years ago with a $12-billion surplus and ran it into the ground. Once the hard times came, it racked up a $47-billion deficit.

Toews says the important thing is not to build new penitentiaries but to slip more bunks into existing institutions, especially those minimum-security facilities where the cells are nice and big.

Toews says he doesn’t have the detailed figures right now but when he does, he’ll be glad to make them public. The last figure given before Toews’ most recent $2-billion estimate was $90 million last fall. It seems to have gone up substantially.

“Just think about all the money saved by society when those criminals are incarcerated instead of being out on the street committing crimes,” Toews said.

Of course, that’s presuming that anybody let out is going to reoffend.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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