According to The Globe and Mail, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is eager to push forward a “tough on crime” agenda now that the federal Conservatives have control of the Canadian Senate.
Beyond the argument of whether a crackdown on crime is really needed, Harper would be wise to take a lesson from California before getting too giddy.
Between the early 1980s and year 2000, California’s prison population grew fivefold. As of late 2008, California housed a total of 171,085 prisoners, at a cost of $10.6 billion (2009-2010 budget proposal). These inmates are guarded by some 63,050 penitentiary, parole and administrative staff.
California’s explosive growth in prisoners was propelled by genuine concerns about crime combined with harsh measures, such as the notorious Three Strikes law. In California, Three Strikes legislation mandates a life sentence on anyone with a record of two serious or violent crimes, upon the commission of their third offence. The third offence need not be violent, which has resulted in the life incarceration for people arrested for stealing lawnmowers and cookies.
Crime has dropped in California; with a population of 23.532 million in 1980, California recorded some 210,290 violent crimes, 3,411 murders, 13,693 forcible rapes, 90,420 robberies, and 102,766 aggravated assaults. By 2008, with a population of 36.756 million, the state recorded 185,173 violent crimes, 2,142 murders, 8,903 forcible rapes, 69,385 robberies and 104,743 aggravated assaults (http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/cacrime.htm).
Crime’s gone down, but at what cost?
Back in the 1967-68 fiscal year, California’s university system received 13.4% of the state’s budget, while the prison system had to make due with roughly four percent. Today, these percentages have changed dramatically: prisons get 9.7% of the state’s budget while universities get 5.9%.
Even conservatives, such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have to come to realize that putting more money into prisons over higher education is not the brightest idea.
“What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns? It simply is not healthy,” stated Schwarzenegger at a recent press conference.
The governor went on to propose a state constitutional amendment that would steer money to higher education and away from prisons.
It remains to be seen if this proposal will ever be implemented: the explosive growth of California prisons has made the prison guard union one of the strongest labour groups in the state.
All of which Prime Minister Harper would be wise to take into account before introducing any new tough-on-crime laws designed to expand Canada’s prison population.