How does taxing prisoners' pathetically meager earnings help victims or make streets safer?
For six years now, the federal Tories have been getting "tough on crime." Many of the legal changes have been welcome, particularly those in regard to terrorism and other forms of serious crime. But other proposals have been misguided - such as the Lawful Access bill, whose flawed nature even Public Safety Minister Vic Toews was forced to concede (days after he had accused the bill's critics of being in league with child pornographers). In other cases, the Tories' tough-on-crime campaign has descended into hardhearted pettiness - rolling back visitation rights, for instance, and closing prison farms.
The latest bad idea involves changes to prison work programs, in which jailbirds learn the value of honest work.
The pay scales in these programs range from $1 to $6.90 a day, haven't changed in 30 years, and are not adjusted for inflation. Despite the fact that these amounts comprise about a 10th of normal minimum wage, Mr. Toews says he wants to garnish prisoners' earnings amounts in order to pay for "room and board."
Specifically, the Public Safety Minister wants to impose a tax (he doesn't use the T-word, but that's what it is) at the rate of 32% - higher than the top federal tax rate of 29%, which applies to income over $132,000. So, under the Tory plan, prisoners making $50 a week will hand over more of their income to the feds than people making 500 times that much. This, says Mr. Toews, will "restore balance" to the system.
"All of these measures build on our record of holding criminals to account and putting the rights of victims and law-abiding citizens first," he said, and align them with "what most Canadians pay in terms of their own housing costs."
We suppose that the Conservatives can build some measure of populist support for just about any measure by lazily sticking a "tough on crime" and "rights of victims" label on it. But even by Mr. Toews' facile standards, this is a stretch - since inmates are already in jail, and taxing away their pathetic earnings seems unlikely to dissuade them from committing any crimes. If anything, it will only hammer home the criminal's mantra that honest work is for chumps.
It's easy to see why the Tories won't give up the "tough-on-crime" campaign: Prisoners have no political constituency, so there's little political downside. And you can always guarantee that the tabloid types will applaud any initiative aimed at making life more miserable for people convicted of crimes.
But eventually, there comes a time when criminal-reform gestures become so laughably petty that the government begins to appear ridiculous. With Mr. Toews' plan to impose a 32% tax on prisoners' meager earnings, that point has been reached