Harper’s ‘tough on crime’ bill could be a colossal mistake


In the past two decades Canada’s national crime rate has been declining, reaching its lowest level since 1973 in 2010. However, the current government is pushing a “tough on crime” agenda, with longer, harsher sentences being imposed more regularly. In 2010, the Truth in Sentencing Act was passed, which limited the credit that judges could grant for time spent in pre-sentencing custody.

An article in the Globe and Mail cited that this not only increased number of individuals held in Canada’s approximately 190 jails and prisons, but was also the main reason behind the increase of the Correctional Service of Canada’s budget to three billion dollars – a greater than 20 per cent increase from the previous year.

A new bill introduced by the Conservative party in September 2011 is pushing this trend even further. Bill C-10, titled The Safe Streets and Communities Act, is an amalgamation of nine smaller bills, which were all introduced and rejected during the Conservative minority government.

While each of the small bills have been somewhat altered from their present state, this fact alone is highly unnerving.

Bill C-10 rewrites laws on the production and possession of drugs, pardons, anti-terrorism, young offenders and numerous others. However, in most of these, the bill introduces or increases minimum sentencing for offences.

While some of these changes may bring more weight to important issues in the eyes of the criminal justice system, this bill will bring about more problems than it will solve.

The biggest problem with this is the imposition of minimum sentencing. While maximum sentencing can prevent judges from exercising irrationally harsh sentencing, minimum sentencing eliminates the opportunity for alternative justice solutions and will drive up the number of inmates held in Canada’s already overcrowded prisons and jails.

In an interview with Anna-Maria Tremonti on CBC’s The Current, judge Barry Stuart, a retired Yukon judge, spoke about Bill C-10, commenting on the ineffectiveness of jail sentences for some: “While the public is led to believe that jail is gonna make a difference, it does make a difference, but not the difference they expect.

“Rarely have I seen people who go off for a long period at jail come back in a much better way than they left a community.

“And we have to understand that, particularly in the North, the people that we send off to jail are coming right back to the same communities, more dysfunctional than they left.”

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada set the precedent for how judges should approach the sentencing process in R. v. Gladue, noting that Canada showed an over-reliance on incarceration as a response to criminal activity.

This case provided the first interpretation of s. 718.2 (e) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which states that “all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal offenders.”

Bill C-10 directly contradicts this through its imposition of minimum sentencing by preventing judges from using alternative justice solutions, such as community work, when the circumstances permit.

According to a 2008 statistic, there are approximately 35 000 incarcerated adults on any given day. Canada’s jails and prisons are currently overflowing, with many already functioning above capacity.

The last thing Canada needs is for politicians to “get tough on crime” by locking more people away while disregarding the source of said crimes, such as poverty and family background.

As the Senate studies the bill, there is one thing it should keep in mind, which was articulated by Eric E. Sterling – a former counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee: “When you start going down this road of building more prisons and sending people away for long periods of time, and you convince yourself that this is going to deter people, you’ve made a colossal mistake.”

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