....All this is happening at a time when Canada's crime rate is at a 26-year-low; when a dozen cash-strapped U.S. states are closing jails, reducing sentences and diverting drug addicts from prison; and when there's a growing body of evidence – including a government-financed report released last month – that the anti-crime policies Harper has embraced produce little public benefit.

It is no mystery why the governing Conservatives don't want to talk about this issue. Harper is promoting himself as a prudent economic manager. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is warning it will take four years of "difficult" belt-tightening to phase out Ottawa's $54 billion deficit. A sharp rise in prison costs, in the middle of an austerity drive, would be awkward to explain.

What is less understandable is that neither the Liberals nor New Democrats are rigorously challenging Harper's tough-on-crime agenda.

When the Liberals were in power, they shifted the correctional system toward rehabilitation programs, community supervision, drug treatment and restorative justice.

The New Democrats were even more inclined to divert offenders – especially young ones – from jail.

Surely both parties know it costs roughly $95,000 a year to keep an offender in jail. (Community supervision costs $23,500 a year.)

Surely they know aboriginal Canadians make up 18 per cent of federal inmates (compared with 4 per cent of the adult population) and black Canadians constitute 6 per cent of federal prisoners (compared with 2 per cent of the population.)

Surely they've seen the reams of studies questioning the effectiveness of crackdowns, harsh sentences that mix young offenders with hardened criminals.

But both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton are so fearful of being labelled "soft on crime" that they've said little, denying the public a badly needed national debate.

The warning signs are clear, yet Canada's parliamentarians choose to ignore them.

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