The government anticipates upward pressure on the territory’s jails and legal system with the advancement of federal omnibus crime Bill C-10, but the cost the legislation will impose on the NWT remains unknown, says Justice Minister Glen Abernethy.
“We’re working on it,” Abernethy responded when questioned in the House by Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley.
“I’d like to see that costing information as much as the Member and I’m committed to getting that information out,” said Abernethy. “It is taking longer than I’d like but it does take a little bit of time to do the level of analysis required.”
Megan Holslapple, press secretary for the GNWT executive, said investments such as prison expansions or building new correctional facilities must follow the capital-planning process, but decisions on those matters will likely wait until after the government gauges the legislation’s effects.
“It’s complicated because the different pieces of the bill will have different effects,” she said in an email.
Abernethy said the price of facilities would be easier to determine, but expenses for increased legal aid and court time will take longer to finalize. He signalled he would have numbers on costs in the next two months.
Bromley worried that waiting two months might be too late to negotiate more money from the federal government to deal with an influx of expenses.
“Obviously other jurisdictions are not waiting until they have dotted all the i’s and crossed the t’s,” he said. “By then it will be too late, this legislation will be in place and we’ll be faced with the immediate ramifications.”
Abernethy said the department of Justice is working with health and social services to create alternatives to keep people out of the justice system altogether, including mental health courts, addictions courts and alcohol treatment courts.
“We all know that alcohol is one of the driving factors of crime in the Northwest Territories and we need to start addressing that, so we are working that,” he said.
Abernethy assured the House that the NWT and Yukon will be less affected by the crime bill than Nunavut because of greater jail capacity, though he could not provide substantial numbers.
“We’re all being affected slightly differently because of different realities,” he said. “Nunavut’s got a bigger problem because they actually have no capacity in their jails whereas here in the Northwest Territories we do have capacity and the Yukon just built a new facility, but the impacts of the bill are going to be the same in many ways.”
Thebacha MLA and Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger told constituents at the beginning of the month that he expects the crime bill will finally get a new, long-awaited women’s correctional facility off the ground in Fort Smith.
“It’s committed for here,” he said. “The only thing holding it up is funding. With Bill C-10, every jurisdiction is anticipating an increased occupancy in their jails. So it will be more critical that it gets built in Smith.”
He mentioned the legislation would put additional pressure on the territory’s limited budget, which will affect other sectors. The women’s correctional facility alone is projected to be in the $40 million range.
“We need to look at critical investments that we’re pressured to make because of things we don’t control,” he said. “This year and next year will be very tight fiscally.”
Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has indicated the roll-out of the bill will be gradual, with nine pieces of the legislation introduced over time.
Bill C-10, titled the Safe Streets and Communities Act, proposes new criminal offenses, increased mandatory minimum sentences, the elimination of some conditional sentences, increased detention times and amendments to immigration and terrorism laws.
The bill received third reading and was approved by the House of Commons on Dec. 5, 2011 and now awaits a Senate ruling.