Provinces are already spending billions to expand their correctional facilities to deal with existing overcrowding, and some of them say the Harper government must pay any additional costs associated with new federal crime laws.
"We would like the federal government to consider providing funding for any federal initiatives, such as crime legislation, that would impact provincial operations," Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry said this week.
Citing cabinet confidence, the federal government has refused to tell opposition members how much its justice bills are expected to cost taxpayers.
The opposition parties, in turn, say they want the Speaker of the House of Commons to find the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide the estimates. It is an issue that could be put to voters if an election is called this spring.
But the Conservative government is also not telling the provinces, which have been largely supportive of the federal legislation, how much more they can expect to pay to house the anticipated increase in prisoners.
The government of Newfoundland and Labrador said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail this week that it has received no information from Ottawa related to the estimated costs of federal crime legislation. Alberta said the same thing.
"There are new criminal laws and it does cause some budgetary problems for the provincial government. We are currently evaluating what the costs will be," said Robert Dutil, Quebec's Minister of Public Security. "We expect to have more defendants in our jails. And if there are prisoners with jail terms of less than two years, then there will certainly be more [people in Quebec prisons]and that will have an effect on our system."
The provinces are already coping with overcrowding caused by an explosion in the number of incarcerated people waiting to be sentenced.
Justin Piche, a doctoral student at Carleton University, has used Freedom of Information requests to calculate that, since 2006, the provinces and territories have allocated more than $2.8-billion toward new correctional infrastructure to deal with that problem and to replace aging jails.
Because most provinces did not take the Conservative crime agenda into account when they planned the new construction, "the crisis that exists in our provincial and territorial jails will only be exacerbated because of federal legislation," Mr. Piche said.
Provincial officials say the cost impacts of federal crime legislation have been discussed at meetings between the federal government and the provinces going back several years.
At the most recent gathering of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for corrections, Ontario and other provinces called on the federal government to provide necessary resources in the event that their prison populations increased.
Ontario officials say they will continue those discussions in future meetings.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, meanwhile, said it is counterintuitive for the federal government to build more prisons when crime rates are declining, thus diverting scarce resources from priorities such as health care and education.
Mr. McGuinty said he does not know how much Ottawa's tough-on-crime initiatives will cost the province. But he said the federal government, and not the provinces, should bear the costs associated with its policies.
This is not just an issue for Ontario, Community Safety Minister Jim Bradley said Wednesday. "There is a concern amongst all the provinces that indeed this could impact on us financially and therefore not enable us to make investments in other areas."
With a report by Rhéal Séguin in Quebec