Pubdate: Mon, 12 May 2014
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2014 Winnipeg Free Press
Author: Alexander Panetta
Page: A11


WASHINGTON - A pair of newly released reports show two countries
moving in opposite directions on law and order: Canada gearing up for
stricter sentencing laws just as the tough-on-crime era winds down in
the United States.

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 receded in the U.S. in recent years, a new study
shows - a dramatic shift from a decades-long trend that made America
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 US$6.7 billion to
US$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.

What did Americans get for their money? Not much, the study states. It
concludes 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 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 back-breaking cost
of their crime policies.

In an email exchange, the former newspaper owner blamed "rabid law and
order demagogues," "political weaklings and cowards," and "judges who
are just prosecutors" for enabling the law enforcement industry over
the years.

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. "Vic Toews and Julian Fantino-nation," he
added, in reference to past and present federal cabinet ministers.
"God help us."

However, when it comes to severity of punishment, Canada is 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 with 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.

One pro-reform organization offers a series of horror stories on its
website about lives ruined by U.S. drug penalties.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums describes a Utah rap producer who
sold a few pounds of marijuana while in possession of a gun; he's now
serving a 55-year minimum sentence.

There's a football player at Southern University who made $1,500 for
introducing two people for a drug transaction. The penalty? Life in

He received a presidential commutation in 2013 and was released after
two decades locked away. But attitudes are shifting quickly. In a U.S.
poll released last month, the Pew Research Center found 67 per cent
agreeing 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 with 1990, when 73 per cent of respondents to a similar
poll said they favoured a mandatory death penalty for "major drug

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 a 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 half of Canada's
federal penitentiaries were running at, or above, their rated capacities.

The Harper 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.

"Canadians lose faith in the criminal-justice system when they feel
that the punishment does not fit the crime."
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