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Canada’s jail and prison system is expensive.  Here are some facts:

Total spending and comparisons

Total (federal, provincial and municipal) public spending on criminal justice in Canada per year is about $20 billion.  (The Parliamentary Budget Officer did a careful breakdown in 2011-12).  About 70% of this spending is provincial/municipal.  The total amounts to about $550 in taxes per person in Canada per year.

Of this, nearly $5 billion is for jails and prisons, of which about 55% is provincial and 45% federal.  The rest is for courts and police.

Compare this amount to other areas of federal spending in the 2018 federal government budget.  Aboriginal Affairs totals about $10 billion.  The total budget of the federal Department of Health is under $3 billion.  Veterans Affairs is about $3.5 billion.  The total budget of the federal Department of the Environment is about $1 billion.  Corrections/justice is one of the largest areas of federal spending after statutory benefits and debt payments.

Annual per prisoner costs and comparisons

Now let’s translate that into costs per prisoner.  According to federal data the average annual cost per prisoner in federal prisons is about $115,000.  Higher security levels are more expensive.  Costs for women prisoners are much higher.

$115,000 is nearly triple the yearly tuition cost at Harvard (about $45,000 US per year in 2015).

The amount spent per prisoner compares to average income in Canada of about $70,000 per household in 2015; $27.000 for an unattached individual; and $39,000 for a female single parent.    According to Workopolis, the average wage in Canada in 2017 was about $50,000.

The average annual cost per prisoner in provincial jails in 2011-12 was about $67,000.

The cost per student per year in post-secondary education in Canada was a little over $20,000 in 2012 (calculated from data in this story).  The cost of one provincial prisoner could pay for 3 post-secondary education students; one federal prisoner is equivalent to 5 students.

It costs about $45,000 to keep a child in the child welfare system (Adoption Council of Canada), and just about the same amount to keep someone in a long-term care bed in an institution ($126 per day according to Home Care Ontario).  Each of these is about a third of the cost of a prisoner in a federal prison.

Costs for alternatives to prison

The average cost per person per year for community supervision (parole, probation) was estimated by the Parliamentary Budget Officer at $18,000 (2018).

The average amount spent per student per year in Canada’s prisons was reported by the Correctional Service as $2,900 (stated in a Correctional Service 2015 report)

The average spending per student per year in Canadian elementary and secondary schools in 2015 was about $12,000.

The basic payment to a family for taking in a foster child in BC is $800-900 per month per child, or about $10,000 per year.

According to a report by the John Howard Society, the public cost after even just one year of a homeless ex-prisoner who doesn’t use a shelter is almost $400,000.

 A source of money for better purposes

According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in the ten years after 2000 annual public spending per capita on criminal justice went up by 23% while crime rates went down by 25%.

Our federal and provincial governments are always looking for ways to save money.  Here’s an easy and obvious one – put fewer people in jail and don’t keep them there as long.  Billions of dollars could then be used for more worthwhile purposes.  This is especially so because much evidence shows that time in jail does not reduce crime, and may actually result in more crime (an issue we’ll take up in a future post).




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