Tough on Crime, Tough on Costs

In recent decades, the “tough on crime” agenda has overwhelmingly dominated popular discourse about correctional policy and crime prevention and governments across the spectrum have waged war against crime, particularly against drug-related crime, by implementing punitive sentencing policies that purportedly deter crime.

Criminal legislation in Canada throughout the last decade has focused primarily on toughening mandatory minimum sentencing, lengthening prison terms for drug-related crimes, and expanding police enforcement powers and spending. An examination of the statistics pertaining to Canada’s crime rate, however, indicates that these “tough on crime” policies have done little to reduce crime. Instead, these initiatives have placed a large expense onto taxpayers, and governments must determine whether maintaining them is optimal.

If we assume “tough on crime” policies are effective, the crime rate should decline substantively following their implementation. In other words, criminals are rational individuals who will theoretically recognize that there is a greater risk associated with committing an illegal act, and as a result, fewer of them should be willing to take that risk. In Canada, however, the data does not support that conclusion. There has been a steady decline in the police-reported crime rate since it peaked in 1991, yet, because there were no significant changes in the federal government’s correction approach, there is little evidence that “tough on crime” policies caused it.
crime stats

The crime rate has been trending downward in the last half-century in many countries and economists, political scientists, and public officials have been digging for an explanation, although there is no consensus among them. There are several theories explaining this trend, from shifting demographics to greater employment opportunities to the legalization of abortion, however, all of them share one common conclusion: policy has not been largely responsible for reducing crime.

Because there is not a direct relationship between “tough on crime” policies and the crime rate, it is important to question whether governments should continue peddling them. After all, these policies are expensive to enforce and public officials could use those funds in a more efficient and equitable manner, such as reallocating them for debt repayment, returning them to taxpayers by cutting taxes, or investing them into programmes and initiatives that would more effectively reduce crime.

However, as these policies have increased the terms of incarceration for prisoners, as well removed many early-release option for offenders, it is no surprise that it has resulted in a rise in prison populations. Now, prisons are largely overpopulated, which have played a role in creating a demand for prison infrastructure. Enhancing, maintaining, and operation prisons is costly and these costs account for a significant share of “tough on crime”-related expenditures. The Correctional Service of Canada, for instance, reported an increase in capital expenditures from $125 million in 2006-07 to roughly $480 million in 2012-13– adjusted for inflation, this represents approximately 278 per cent over six years. Furthermore, the spring 2014 auditor general report has indicated that these expansions has still not been enough, and capacity pressures will “again be at or over capacity within a few years of completing construction.” As a result, it is unlikely that there will be a significant decrease in capital expenditures in the near future.

Similarly, rising police expenditures have placed fiscal pressure on the federal government. Many of these expenditures featured in the 2008 omnibus bill, the Tackling Violent Crime Act, which touted a spending strategy of $727 million over two years. Included in it was $37 million for the RCMP to expand its National Training Academy, $101 million to arm border officers and eliminate “work alone” posts, and $161 million for an additional 1,000 RCMP officers and federal prosecutors. However, if the crime rate is declining due to a multitude of factors, however, these expenditures may seem unnecessary, if not redundant.

Although there is public support for these policies, the evidence suggests their role in reducing the crime rate has been futile. Instead, these policies burden taxpayers in a plethora of ways and governments should reconsider enacting similar policies and focus on implementing alternative policies that be more effective in reducing, and preventing, crime in Canada.

Devin Drover is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics at Memorial University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

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