Of all the many parts of the federal justice budget, the Conservative government has found exactly the wrong one to cut.
A Canadian Press report last week revealed that in April, $1.2 million was removed from the department’s research budget – 20 per cent of the total. As a result, eight researchers have lost their jobs. The dual purpose of the cut, in the convoluted, vaguely ominous words of Justice Minister Peter MacKay: “To ensure that we bring value to hard-earned taxpayers’ dollars” and that “research is … undertaken to obtain information to support priorities of government.”
But if the government wants to reduce the justice budget it ought to heed the evidence, not eliminate it. Since the Conservatives took power in 2006, justice spending has risen by more than 30 per cent, even as the crime rate has continued its steady, two-decade-long, largely demographics-driven decline. Mandatory minimum sentences, harsh penalties for marijuana possession, a crackdown on young offenders, the phasing-out of house arrest – these and other aspects of the Conservative government’s tough-on-crime approach to justice policy is producing a bloated and crushingly costly prison system.
And yet an ever-growing body of evidence, including world-leading research by the department of justice, suggests these policies drain the public purse without making us any safer. Seen from one very narrow perspective, then, the cuts provide a sensible escape route from a political quandary. The more we know about Stephen Harper’s expensive, unjust and ineffective tough-on-crime policy, the less sensible it seems. The government’s solution: know less.