Pubdate: Wed, 29 Feb 2012
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2012 The Ottawa Citizen
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.


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

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. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.