Pubdate: Wed, 29 Feb 2012 Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON) Copyright: 2012 The Ottawa Citizen Contact: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/letters.html Website: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/326 Author: Eric E. Sterling, Ottawa Citizen Note: Eric E. Sterling, former assistant counsel, Subcommittee on Crime, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives (1979-1989), is a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. CANADA IS REPEATING U.S. MISTAKES ON DRUG SENTENCING As Canadian senators meet this week to vote on comprehensive anti-crime Bill C-10, they need to reflect upon the U.S. experience and reject the bill's entrenchment of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences in Canada. As has been the case in the U.S., mandatory minimums can easily go wrong in Canada, too, in ways entirely predictable. Exploding court and correctional costs for resource-strapped national and provincial governments is one likely calamity that Canadians can expect from mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In 1986, I played a central role helping the U.S. Congress write the federal mandatory minimum sentences. Soon we saw the devastating effects that this legislation forced upon unprepared court and correctional systems. The U.S. legislation was hastily written to meet election timelines, and without thorough budget analysis. While the Canadian bill has long been pending in Parliament, a careful assessment of how it will be used and what it will cost is still missing. In the U.S., our Congressional Budget Office initially estimated mandatory minimums would increase costs of federal prisons by $55.2 million over the first five years. In fact, over the first five years the added costs totalled $3.216 billion, 58 times our estimates. President Barack Obama is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in the next budget to address an overcrowded federal prison system that is 38 per cent over capacity. In addition, the effects of mandatory minimums on prison budgets have threatened to bankrupt states such as California. This ought to be sufficient warning to provinces such as Ontario that are grappling with massive budget deficits. The U.S. mandatory minimum sentences were tied to metric system quantities unfamiliar to most Americans. Legislators adopted tiny quantities such as five, 10 or 50 grams to trigger long prison terms, naively believing those quantities would lead to organized crime kingpins. Similarly in Canada, the selection of six or 200 marijuana plants in Bill C-10 to "identify" important marijuana criminals are numbers that are ridiculously low. These are quantities that will send the gardeners to prison for the mandatory terms the government intends for organized crime chieftains. These numbers of plants suggest that most federal politicians have no understanding of the structure of the criminal industry they are trying to curb. Mandatory minimums severely damaged the credibility and reputation of the justice system and put innocent victims behind bars. Perjury increased dramatically, as perpetrators attempting to avoid long mandatory sentences concocted stories to convince prosecutors that other, minor participants were really the ring leaders. Threats and killings of civilian witnesses ("snitches") became epidemic, and non-drug legal matters were squeezed out of strained court systems. After a generation of frustrated judges, and detailed analyses of these problems, marijuana policies in the United States have become much more progressive than those in Canada. For instance, 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing some degree of medical use of marijuana. Fourteen states have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana possession. In November 2008, voters in Massachusetts adopted a state wide marijuana decriminalization law by a margin of 65 per cent to 35 per cent. In September 2010, then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that reduced the offence of simple possession of marijuana from a misdemeanour to an infraction. Possession of less than 28.5 grams of cannabis is now like a traffic ticket, punishable by a $100 fine. Last spring, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed a similar law. The purported rationale for mandatory minimums in the U.S. was noble: to incapacitate organized crime, to keep drugs out of the hands of our children, and to reduce drug use. There was no evidence these goals could be achieved. But the political temptation to promote harsh sounding sentences was too seductive in 1986. Ironically, no opponent of mandatory minimum sentences has ever lost re-election on this issue. We have learned that imprisoning countless marijuana gardeners has no impact on organized crime leaders, doesn't keep drugs away from kids or kids away from drugs, and actually increases criminals' profits by driving up prices. Countless lives have been ruined due to incarceration and criminal records for non-violent drug offences. Based on this irrefutable evidence, and the repeal of mandatory sentencing measures in numerous states, I can see only one reason why Canada's federal government and some provincial governments would want to go down this wasteful route: the belief it is good electoral politics to parade as tough on drugs and crime. At this time of fiscal limits, taxpayers can't afford the luxury of expensive and symbolic anti-crime measures. Parliament must embrace only policies that are effective, respect the taxpayers' pocketbook and are evidence-based. Mandatory minimums fit none of these important criteria. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.