Federal ‘tough on crime’ plan could cost Alberta $18M a year

The federal government’s “tough on crime” agenda could be tough on Alberta’s coffers, based on a provincial government analysis obtained by the Herald under freedom of information legislation.

The internal document, drafted in 2011 prior to the passage of the Safe Streets and Communities Act, predicted stricter sentencing provisions could increase the annual cost of running provincial jails for adult offenders – pegged at $175 million this year – by up to $18 million.

Justice Minister and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis said his government supports Ottawa’s move to impose more mandatory minimum sentences and eliminate conditional sentences for several offences – but he wants the federal government to pay a portion of the added costs.

“People in this province are tired of people getting slaps on the wrist for major crimes,” said Denis.

Conditional sentence orders (CSOs) allow offenders to serve their time outside of jail, as long as they abide by court-ordered conditions such as house arrest for the duration of their term.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act, passed in 2012, eliminated CSOs for all offences with a maximum sentence of 14 years or more, such as manslaughter, aggravated assault, arson and fraud over $5,000.

The legislation also eliminated CSOs for several violent crimes and offences involving drug trafficking or weapons.

The resulting financial impact on the provincial jail system isn’t yet known, mainly because departmental officials haven’t determined what effect Alberta’s population growth has had on rising prisoner numbers in provincial jails.

Once the provincial government has an idea how many additional prisoners are behind bars due to the federal measures, Denis said he’ll be asking Ottawa to help pay for them.

“I think it’s reasonable for Alberta to pick up some of these costs, but not all of them,” he said.

Provincial jails house offenders serving sentences shorter than two years, as well as remanded defendants awaiting trial.

Last year, the system averaged 3,167 adult offenders in custody.

At the time the 2011 analysis was written, the average daily head count in provincial jails was 2,985.

The analysis predicted that population growth alone would result in a 12.6 per cent increase in the average daily count by the end of 2014-15, to 3,360.

The analysis then considered a number of scenarios, varying the percentage of offenders who will go to jail instead of receiving CSOs and how long they’d be behind bars.

A “minimum impact” scenario with only half of formerly eligible CSO recipients going to jail and getting a jail sentence half the length of the non-custodial sentence they would have received would cost the province an extra $7.3 million a year.

However, the analysis predicted the effect on the system will likely be much closer to the $18 million forecasted in the “maximum impact” assumption.

“At this time, it is estimated that the most likely scenario is that 75 per cent of those who will be ineligible for a CSO under Bill C-10 will receive a custody sentence. If this group receives a custody sentence that is 75 per cent as long as the CSO they would have received, the operational impact is between $16.5 and $18.5 million,” it read.

Under that scenario, the average daily head count will increase to between 3,757 and 3.799.

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