Pubdate: Mon, 12 May 2014
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2014 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Alexander Panetta
Page: B6


Sentencing in this country is getting tougher, but it's easing in the
U.S., writes Alexander Panetta.

A pair of newly released reports show Canada and the U.S. are inching
in opposite directions on law and order, with Canada gearing up for an
era of tougher sentencing just as the United States shortens its
traditionally harsher terms.

Canada's auditor general issued a warning last week about increasingly
overcrowded prisons in an era of stiffer jail terms.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., these are tough times to be tough on crime.
The prison population actually receded in the U.S. in recent years, a
new study shows - a dramatic shift from a decades-long trend that made
the United States the undisputed world leader in incarceration with
more than two million prisoners, or one-quarter of the entire
international total.

The National Research Council study explained how drug laws turned the
U.S. from a country with normal incarceration levels to a place with
imprisonment rates six times higher than Canada's.

Three per cent of American children now have a parent behind bars, and
the impact has been especially devastating in the black community -
which has six times more people imprisoned than whites.

The cost: U.S. corrections spending increased from 1.9 per cent to 3.3
per cent of state budgets since 1985, rising from $6.7 billion US to
$53.2 billion. Adjusted for inflation, states' combined corrections
spending increased by just over 400 per cent, while the number of
prisoners increased by 475 per cent.

So what did Americans get for their money? Not much, according to the
study, which concludes that the policies might have contributed to an
overall decrease in crime, but not significantly.

As Canada adds mandatory minimum sentences to its Criminal Code, the
U.S. study recommends doing away with them.

Congress is considering a handful of softer-on-crime measures, while
since 2009, some 40 U.S. states have relaxed their drug laws. The
trend has broad political backing - not only from the left, but also
from different wings of the Republican party, including potential 2016
presidential candidates Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.

Media barons past and present are weighing in, too.

Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch said last week that nobody should spend
more than six months in prison for crack possession. Closer to home,
Conrad Black, who became a vocal advocate of justice reform after his
stay in a U.S. prison, said Americans are waking up to the
backbreaking cost of their crime policies.

He called for a variety of reforms ranging from better legal aid, and
letting the defence speak last in court cases, to reducing or
completely eliminating prison sentences for non-violent people.

And he urged Canada to steer clear of the recent U.S.

"It is a completely rotten system and the Canadian emulation of it,
with reduction of rehabilitative features and physical separation of
prisoners from family visitors, and the certainty that native people
will be the chief occupants of these new prisons, is insane and
reprehensible," Black said. However, when it comes to severity of
punishment, Canada is still not even close to the U.S.

In Canada, the maximum penalty for cocaine trafficking might be life
imprisonment - but mandatory minimum sentences of one and two years
would apply only if the crime was committed within a gang or near a

Compare that to the U.S., where carrying five kilos of cocaine is an
automatic 10 years to life in prison for a first offence, and 20 years
to life for a second offence.

But attitudes are shifting quickly.

In a U.S. poll released last month, the Pew Research Center found 67
per cent agreeing that government should focus more on treating people
who use illegal drugs, compared with 26 per cent who said prosecution
should be the focus. Compare that to 1990, when 73 per cent of
respondents to a similar poll said they favoured a mandatory death
penalty for "major drug traffickers."

The politicians are taking note. In addition to reforms in dozens of
states, the U.S. Congress is weighing bills with bipartisan support
that would reduce mandatory minimums and allow early release for
low-risk prisoners.

Congress also passed a 2010 bill that significantly narrowed the
drastic disparity between penalties for cocaine and crack possession.

Attorney General Eric Holder has also instructed federal prosecutors
to prosecute drug offences more leniently, and called on states to
stop removing voting rights from ex-convicts.

Up north, the conversation is on different track. Canada's federal
prison population has increased about seven per cent since 2009, with
a similar rate of growth forecast for the next few years.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson reported last week that half of
Canada's federal penitentiaries were running at, or above, their rated

The Conservative government has added mandatory minimums through five
major pieces of legislation, related to drugs, gang activity,
white-collar crime and property theft. Some of them are under attack,
and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case where mandatory
minimums were tossed out for some gun crimes.

The government says it's committed to the tougher approach.

"For certain offences, our government firmly believes that a minimum
period of incarceration is justified," said an email from the office
of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
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