Pubdate: Fri, 14 Apr 2006
Source: Centretown News (CN ON)
Copyright: 2006 Centretown News
Author: Christopher Maughan
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


It was a textbook Conservative play. Before Parliament even opened
last Monday, Stephen Harper was giving a speech to a group of police
officers, vowing that his government would get tough on crime.

So while Michaelle Jean was delivering her consensus-building Speech
from the Throne that afternoon, Harper could rest easy knowing he had
done his bit to re-affirm some classic Conservative values.

Some of Harper's agenda on crime makes sense. Toughening up the
conditions on parole, for instance, is a good idea. But the prime
minister's drug policy needs a lot of work.

Harper said he's going to deliver on his campaign promises by
introducing mandatory minimum sentences for dealers, repeat offenders
and what he called serious criminals.

Locking criminals up for longer may seem like a good way to keep
Canadians safe, but all this will do is put more small-time dealers in
prison without catching the organized criminals running the show.
Mandatory minimum sentencing isn't going to deter the biker gangs and
mafiosos at the root of drug production: we already have minimum
sentences for organized criminals. Their introduction didn't exactly
thin out the ranks of the Hells Angels.

Conservative policymakers have long arugued that minimum sentences are
effective deterrents. But the harshness of the penalty is not what
deters someone from committing a crime; rather, it's the likelihood of
getting caught, says Barry Beyerstein, a member of the Canadian Centre
for Drug Policy.

And mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea on principle. In
western legal systems, part of the reason everyone gets their own
trial is that the circumstances of individual cases are always unique.

Politicians have no business making pre-ordained decisions on the
future of people brought before the courts. A judge who has heard the
case from start to finish should be the only person to decide what
penalties are appropriate.

Simply put, it's too draconian to pass a law that ignores mitigating

That's why the previous government set up special courts to deal with
non-violent, drug-related crimes. Apparently, this prime minister
doesn't understand that many of the drug dealers, repeat offenders and
serious criminals he wants to subject to minimum sentencing break the
law because they are addicts and have habits to feed.

When brought before the special courts, addicts can plead guilty to
their charges in exchange for a conditional sentence, one that
replaces jail time with mandatory drug treatment. Pilot programs in
Toronto and Vancouver were so successful the government pledged $13.3
million to establish them in other cities, including Ottawa. In
Toronto, as many as 85 per cent of addicts did not re-offend after
being tried in drug court.

The drug court concept is one that's also been catching on in many
U.S. states, where years of mandatory minimum sentencing for
drug-related crime resulted in record prison populations but no real
reduction in the supply of drugs on the U.S. market, according to Beyerstein.

It's a concept that works. When dealing with drug addicts, the best
approach is always treatment. You can send people to jail forever, but
unless they receive proper treatment, they'll still be drug addicts
when they get out. And that means they'll likely re-offend.

Harper's plan to introduce minimum sentences for repeat offenders and
serious criminals will almost certainly put these new courts in
jeopardy. In fact, the prime minister has gone on record saying he
wants to do away with conditional sentencing for repeat offenders.

That's a shame, because it's the only way some addicts will be able to
break the cycle of crime and drug abuse. It's such a common problem
that defence attorneys call it "doing a life sentence on the
instalment plan."

In addition to being unpractical and draconian, Harper's drug policy
has the wrong focus. Of all the drugs he could have singled out in his
speech last week, he chose marijuana, mentioning it twice
specifically. In addition to the tough new mandatory sentences, Harper
said he'd make sure grow operators and dealers got hefty fines.

With cocaine and crystal meth use on the rise, it's amazing Harper
would choose to focus on the drug whose production and distribution
involves the greatest amount of citizens who aren't attached to crime
in any other way. A 2002 study by the International Centre for
Criminal Law Reform found that almost half of marijuana grow operators
in B.C. had no previous criminal record.

Not to mention that public support for outright legalization of the
drug rose to just under 60 per cent a year and a half ago. Harper, of
course, will have none of that: he went out of his way last Monday to
say he wouldn't re-introduce the Liberal decriminalization bill that
died on the order paper when the government fell. It was an easy way
to appeal to his Conservative base without provoking the Liberals, who
are now clinging to their remaining seats too tightly to revisit such
a controversial debate.

The problem with the prime minister's stance on crime generally is
that he takes the same approach across the board, arguing for minimum
sentences and harsher penalties for just about every type of serious
crime. Harper needs to realize that the same solution won't work for
each problem, and that some solutions, like it or not, may not be
found in the traditional Conservative playbook.
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