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June 23, 2008 -- National Post (Canada)

No New Prisons Despite Stricter Laws

Ageing Facilities Will Be Renovated, Ottawa Says

By Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service

OTTAWA -- The Harper government has no long-term plans to build new prisons to house an anticipated influx of offenders convicted under the Conservatives' tough-on-crime initiatives, despite setting aside up to $245-million for at least one extra penitentiary immediately after coming to power two years ago.

According to a Correctional Service of Canada capital plan, existing prisons, which are ageing and already full, would be renovated and expanded to meet increasing demands over the next decade if need be, but "at this time there are no major prisons envisaged."

The Correctional Service acknowledges, however, that "with the implementation for various government initiatives in tackling crime, an increase in the offender population may result."

The information was provided recently upon request to New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who was seeking written details from Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day on the impact of federal anti-crime measures on Canada's penitentiaries.

The Conservatives ran on a platform of putting more criminals in prison and keeping them there longer.

Criminologist Neil Boyd said he does not think the government needs to build any new facilities because its new laws, to date, will not have much of an impact on the number of people sent to prison.

Canada's 54 federal penitentiaries, for prisoners serving sentences of two years or more, housed 13,200 offenders in 2006-2007, at a cost of about $82,000 each. Most facilities are more than 40 years old and already are operating near capacity.

The government's key initiative, which passed in February, would increase automatic prison terms for a variety of gun-related crimes.

Mr. Day estimated two years ago that the gun bill would put about 300 to 400 more prisoners annually in federal penitentiaries.

Mr. Boyd thinks the real numbers will be less than that, given the bill that eventually cleared the Commons was not as tough as the one the Conservatives originally proposed.

"I'm not sure it will have any impact," said Mr. Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. "Nothing they have done to date is going to dramatically increase prison populations."

Mr. Boyd said the only initiative that will make a significant difference -- a proposal to impose minimum mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes -- has still not passed in Parliament.

Two years ago, in their first federal budget, the Conservatives said that a new medium-security institution and additional maximum-security space could be needed to house extra prisoners captured by a host of tougher sentences proposed in the government's election platform.

At the time, Mr. Day pegged the price at somewhere between $220-million and $245-million over five years.

Mr. Day's office did not respond to a request for updated information on prisoner projections.

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