Pubdate: Sat, 01 Dec 2007
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 The Toronto Star
Authors: Betsy Powell, and Jim Rankin
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


As far as ideas go, the verdict on new Tory anti-crime measures 
unrolled over the past couple of weeks - from people who make a 
living studying such things - has been unanimous.

Bad idea.

So, why is it then that the proposal to implement measures that have 
demonstrably failed to reduce crime and flooded an already 
overcrowded prison system have such traction? Politics, pure and simple.

Politicians of all stripes want to be seen as being "tough on crime," 
says Greg Rogers, executive director of the John Howard Society of 
Toronto. One of the most popular ways to demonstrate that a political 
party is serious about cracking down on crime is to propose mandatory 
minimum sentences, a make-the-criminals pay approach that the 
Conservatives promised and have introduced.

U.S. politicians started along that path in the mid-'70s knowing full 
well "there was little they could do about the 'root causes' of 
crime, especially in the short run," American university professors 
Alfred Blumstein and Alex R. Piquero wrote in a just-released paper.

Chris Jones, executive director of Ottawa-based John Howard Society 
of Canada, understands why voters like the idea.

"Cracking down on crime makes people feel good. It appeals to the 
punitive impulse. The fact that it doesn't do good doesn't come out 
until years later when the auditor general says, 'Well, here's what 
you got for your money - basically, nothing.'"

Yet the approach is now widely discredited south of the border where 
2.2 million people are behind bars, making the U.S. the world leader 
in imprisonment - at a cost of $60 billion a year. And while the 
crime rate has come down, there's little evidence to suggest it 
relates to greater rates of incarceration.

" (A) look at data about crime and imprisonment will show that prison 
populations continued to swell long after crime rates declined and 
stayed low," says a new report called Unlocking America. In Canada, 
where crime rates have also fallen steadily, the prison population 
has remained steady over the last few decades, research shows.

Unlocking America, written by criminologists for the Washington-based 
JFA Institute, calls on U.S. lawmakers to dramatically shift gears, 
shorten sentences and redirect money pouring into the for-profit 
corrections industry into crime-control strategies that work.

The reasons are persuasive and plentiful.

The "imprisonment binge," has created an "American apartheid" that 
has put 8 per cent of U.S. black men of working age behind bars. 
Despite the fact American courts mete out sentences that are double 
that of British and three times that of Canadian courts, the U.S. 
violent crime rate is higher.

And now the Conservatives are moving to push Canada to adopt a system 
that costs more and works less effectively. "This is a 
prison-building strategy," says the John Howard Society's Jones.

A report prepared by the agency that oversees federal prisons and 
obtained by the Star earlier this year concluded the Conservatives' 
law-and-order agenda will lead to dramatic increases in the prison population.

The analysis also found that minimum sentences don't have a deterrent 
effect and drain away funds available for social programs that 
prevent crime. It even noted that the U.S. is moving away from 
mandatory minimum sentences and embarking on reforms to improve 
parole to ease crowding and reduce incarceration rates.

"It's the American model and, ironically, it's at the same time the 
Americans who are trying to extricate themselves from mandatory 
minimum sentences," Jones said in a recent interview. "There's no 
other jurisdiction that I know of anywhere in the world that is 
rushing to embrace mandatory minimum sentences."

Part of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's message when he tabled the 
legislation to stiffen sentences for drug dealing was to emphasize 
that the government is targeting "serious" drug crimes and criminals 
out of concern about young people using drugs.

But Rogers says the proposed law will do nothing to slow the drug 
trade in Canada's largest city. "Once you put someone in jail, 
someone else takes their place. It's as simple as that."

Ottawa lawyer and drug policy expert Eugene Oscapella says he has no 
doubt the changes will cause the rate of imprisonment to soar and 
require the building of new prisons.

And his reading of the law suggests huge numbers of drug-addicted and 
non-violent people could be sent to prison. About 20,000 people are 
arrested annually on marijuana-related charges, according to Statistics Canada.

"If a person is found guilty of producing between one to 200 
marijuana plants, they would face a mandatory minimum of six months 
in prison if the offence is committed for the purpose of trafficking, 
which can be: 'Hi, want to share a joint with me?'"

Stiffer sentences will make the drug trade more violent, he adds, 
because it will drive up prices and profits and dissuade some of the 
non-violent "ma-and-pa type producers to get out of the business."

What most want, says Barry MacKnight, president of the Canadian 
Association of Chiefs of Police, is a balanced approach.

"Although tackling the root causes of crime must always be a 
priority, it cannot be achieved by diverting all funding from 
enforcement activities," MacKnight, who is chief of police in 
Fredericton, responded in email when asked for the CACP's position on 
mandatory minimum sentences.

"And although there are cases where jail is clearly not the answer, 
there are those for whom jail is a necessary and effective deterrent."
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