Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another "unfunded mandate": Truth in sentencing

My beef today is about unfunded mandates. This is a common complant in the States, that the feds will impose new programs on the state governments, or transfer costs to businesses or consumers without providing adequate funding as an offset.   This has been an issue with poorer states who have no plausible or meaningful way of enforcing federal clean air and water regulations.   Or with business owners who have had to make their facilities wheelchair accesible without getting any tax credits (of course, they should).

It was also a big beef in the early days our social safety net was created in Canada, that the feds would not fund medicare, social assistance etc. or not do so to make the programs sustainable.

But unfunded mandates also apply to state obligations like prisons. Unlike the US which has separate federal and state correctional facilities, here in Canada the system is integrated. Those sentenced to terms up to two years less one day wind up in a provincial or territorial correctional institute while those doing two years or more become the responsibility of the federal government.

To alieviate overcrowding the rule up until now has been that one can get two days credit for each one day of pre-sentencing custody. Now, however, it's going down to one. Fair enough -- but two problems arise. One, there has been no really trustworthy costing from the feds as to how much this would cost. And second, the Conservaties appear to not want to adequately fund the increased costs provinces will face, especially as we get out of recession.

Things have gotten so bad with overcrowding in the United States, especially with the misguided "war on drugs" that has seen the prison population surge by a factor of five over the last thirty years that many courts now issue consent decrees saying if jails cross over a certain threshold they have to release some prisoners. Will that happen in Canada? I suspect it will.

Too, many states are on the verge of bankruptcy because of these policies. And it's not just drugs. Many prosecutors are now ignoring mandatory minimums and are very willing to cut plea deals to ensure their states stay in compliance. Many of the same are also not seeking the death penalty anymore because of the explosive costs there. True, we abolished capital punishment decades ago but where a life sentence unless otherwise tarriffed usually means seven years in jail followed by parole for life we're asking for major, major trouble.

We should be tough on crime as well as on its causes. But if we are going to get tough on both, then we need to make sure it's funded properly. Otherwise, it's just a counterproductive exercise. And I think it will wind up costing way more than the $2 billion over five years the Cons claim it will be, or the $5 billion the province say it actually is. And that's just to build new jails.   Then you have to feed prisoners as well as try to reduce the chance of recividism with all sorts of programs -- and the current political climate is to allow inmates to rot and not get a chance to improve their lives or turn them around.
This is trouble waiting to happen.   Simple as that.   The general trend in violent crime has trended downwards over time.   It will go up gradually unless the money is coughed up.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing the uderlying principle & historical backdrop for this: it's a very useful contribution to the discussion & informing people's opinion on this badly thought out legislation.