Pubdate: Mon, 12 May 2014
Source: StarPhoenix, The (CN SN)
Copyright: 2014 The StarPhoenix
Author: Alexander Panetta
Page: D6


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 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 
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. model.

"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 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 school.

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.

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 prison.

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 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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom