Canada is spending more to combat less crime, PBO finds

Why Kevin Page's report won't clarify the law-and-order debate

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

This morning’s release of a richly detailed, yet admirably straightforward, report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer on what Canadian governments spend enforcing criminal law and locking up offenders should be enough to bring new calm and clarity to a debate that’s usually clouded by emotion.

But, of course, that’s highly unlikely. Crime and punishment arguments are bitterly polarized. The Conservative government is inclined to pay little attention to the plain fact that crime rates have been declining for many years, seeking political advantage by presenting itself as a bulwark against lawlessness. But its critics, I’m afraid, tend too often to brush off the legitimate anxiety felt by many Canadians, especially about highly publicized gun crime, as if public opinion doesn’t matter when it fails to neatly reflect the data.

For anyone seeking a fair-minded turn in this debate, though, the PBO’s exemplary report offers a solid starting point. The most fundamental figures it presents frame a policy paradox. From 2002 to 2011, Canada’s crime rate decreased by just over 30 per cent, from 7,516 incidents per 100,000 people to 5,757. Yet from 2002-2012, inflation-adjusted spending on criminal justice, both by Ottawa and the provinces and territories, soared 37 per cent.

Overall spending now stands at more than $20 billion, 73 per cent provincial and 27 per cent federal. That’s serious money—the PBO points out that it’s as much as Ottawa spends on national defence. Funding the armed forces is, though, strictly a federal matter. But the Harper government’s law-and-order agenda, especially sentencing policies that result in more offenders going to jail for longer stretches, leaves provinces no choice but to pick up at least some of the costs.

“The main thing that sticks out for me,” said University of Ottawa criminologist Justin Piché about the PBO report, “is the provinces are bearing the lion’s share of the costs.” That’s a point particularly worth considering on the day before the tabling of a new federal budget, for which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has reaffirmed his longstanding pledge that he will not cut transfers to the provinces. Does Flaherty’s concern for provincial balance sheets extend to making sure federal justice policy doesn’t impose unnecessary new costs?

Piché predicts with some frustration that the federal government and its defenders will point to falling crime rates during a period of rising spending on enforcement as evidence that its policies are actually working. In fact, he says trends toward less crime, including less severe crime, long pre-date the 2006 election of the Harper Conservatives.

Perhaps the most unsettling figure in the PBO report is that, even with the crime rate dropping, Canada’s total incarceration rate rose by 5.8 per cent between 2002 and 2010, from 133 to 141 per 100,000 people behind bars. Even if your instinct is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with throwing more criminals in prison (despite the fact that there are fewer of them overall), surely that needs to be balanced with efforts to prevent crime and helping offenders, particularly the many with drug problems, change their lives.

Yet where is the evidence that federal policy takes this side of crime policy seriously? The PBO report unambiguously charts the rise in spending on police, courts and prisons. Elsewhere, though, there’s no evidence of similar increase in resources for prevention and treatment. For instance, last year I reported on how Health Canada’s funding for drug treatment programs, under a broader federal anti-drug strategy, is slated to drop 15 per cent in the coming five years, compared to the previous five, while the RCMP’s targeted funding for drug enforcement is projected to jump 22 per cent in the same period. To me, that divergence suggests a troubling policy imbalance.

There is at least one promising development, however, in the broad picture of rising spending to fight falling crime. Early this year, police chiefs from across the country convened in Ottawa for a summit on the economics of law enforcement. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told them they must most quickly to reform the way they work or be “cut drastically” by governments no longer willing to pay more and more.

Michael Kempa, another University of Ottawa criminology professor, says the policy atmosphere following that January summit on the economics of policing is more promising than it has been at any time in the past two decades. He says a combination of budget pressures since the recession of 2008-2009 and new research on police efficiency have combined to push many forces toward truly fresh thinking.

“It’s about redefining the core functions of police,” Kempa says. After years of new responsibilities being heaped on police forces, many police planners are moving toward clarifying and streamlining their roles. A key shift, he said, will be to move the lead responsibilities for investigating financial and Internet crime to specialists, and away from conventional police, who are better equipped to be handling conventional violent and property crimes.

If Kempa is right, Canadian police forces will soon enter a period of reform that sensibly controls costs while actually improving enforcement in growing categories of crime. It’s an upbeat outlook on one of the key components of rising spending the PBO captured so convincingly.

And if policing costs can be subjected to clear, consensus-building analysis, why not, say, prison policy? No reason—beyond the refusal of politicians who set the tone for this important debate to tone down the rhetoric and turn their attention toward the sort of invaluable data and dispassionate analysis delivered by the PBO today.

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