Published by Senator Colin Kenny on 27 February 2012
Given the proper re-sources, police do two things: They deter crimes, and when prevention fails, they solve them.
Prisons also do two things: They incarcerate those who have commit-ted a crime, taking them off our streets. They also bring criminals together to toughen up, nurse their bitterness, and plot more crimes.
There was once a hope that prisons could be centres of rehabilitation. That happens every now and then, but nobody pretends that's what they're there for anymore.
The quality of policing has been a recurring is-sue in Alberta. Albertans need good cops. They also need prisons. But if you're investing scarce dollars in trying to create a safer society, good cops beat big prisons, hands down.
So why - at a time when several tough-on-crime U.S. state governments are rethinking their doctrinaire stand on incarceration - is the Harper government investing Canadian taxpayers' money into prisons? Why isn't it funnelling that money into the rehabilitation of an institution that is struggling to do its job: the RCMP?
Not long ago, the auditor general of Canada revealed that the RCMP is giving up many of its investigations into drug gangs, mobsters and organized crime because it doesn't have the resources to pursue them.
Canada's national police force is stretched way too thin. My best estimate is that the RCMP is 5,000 officers short of what it needs to perform all the tasks politicians keep heaping upon it.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has made policing a much more time-consuming process than it was two or three decades ago. Parliament also expanded the workload of the RCMP exponentially in areas such as terrorism, Internet crime and border security, with-out investing enough new funding to match these responsibilities.
When David Brown headed his 2007 task force into problems within the RCMP, he visited several detachments across the country. He found every one of them understaffed - often by 25 to 30 per cent.
In his report, Brown wrote: "The force continues to meet its commitments only because its members are prepared to work too long and too hard (because of) the lack of re-sources."
That lack of resources persists. A recent survey in British Columbia showed RCMP detachments doing contract work on Vancouver Island have a total vacancy rate of 17 per cent - 10 per cent of positions are not filled, with the other seven per cent absent due to predictable factors for such things as illness or parental leave.
In Alberta and most other contract provinces, the RCMP is also trying to do too much with too little. In Calgary, which has its own municipal police service, the ratio of police officers to citizens is one to 598. In Edmonton, which also has its own service, the ratio is one to 502. In Red Deer, served by the RCMP, the ratio is one to 684.
Ending the RCMP's contract policing responsibilities isn't the answer - contract policing largely pays for itself and provides invaluable training. It also allows for exceptional crime-fighting connectivity across the country that would not otherwise exist.
No, the answer is not an end to contract policing.
The answer is a sizable increase in the federal government's investment in its national police force. Instead, the government remains hell bent on in-vesting that money into prisons - $9 billion worth. That's on top of the 86 per cent increase in the cost of the prison system since the Harper government took power. Think about it: in 2009, it cost an average of $109,699 to keep a Canadian male in prison.
Jerry Madden is a conservative Republican. He heads the Texas House Committee on Corrections. He is helping lead Texas away from its harsh incarceration policies, and here's what he has to say: "It's a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build 'em, I guarantee you they will come. They'll be filled, OK, because people will send them there. If you don't build 'em, (we) will come up with very creative things to do that keep the community safe and yet still do the incarceration necessary."
In California, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state's over-crowded prisons are un-constitutional. The state has given a go-ahead to a ballot initiative to back off its three-strikes law that has in the past put people in jail for 25 years to life for stealing a pair of socks as their third offence.
It took a long time for these hard-nosed states to figure out that social programs and good policing beat locking people up to train to be even better criminals when they get out. They're beginning to understand. Not us. We're busy dumbing down our system of crime prevention. That's going to cost us in more ways than one.