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Dumb On Crime

The Conservative crime bill just doesn’t make sense

by Stephen LaRose

To hear the Conservative Party of Canada talk about crime, you'd think we need to turn on the Bat-Signal. On Sept. 20, they rolled nine bills into one, creating an omnibus Safe Streets and Communities Act that will toughen sentencing requirements, restrict sentencing options for judges, increase the length of sentences for first-time offenses and generally crack down on everybody that isn't willing or able to Walk The Line.

And they want this legislation passed within 100 days, or else.

Uhhh… what country are we talking about again? Canada? Where the crime rate, on a per-capita basis, is at the same level it was in 1973? Why, in fact yes - that's exactly the country we're talking about.

And yet we're panicking like crime is at prohibition levels, with innocent bystanders machine-gunned on every street corner 24-7.

And in doing so, we're tumbling down the same prosecutorial and judicial rabbit hole that helped bring the United States - especially its state and municipal governments - to near-bankruptcy.

In the U.S., governments are groaning under the financial obligations of an overcrowded prison system. Rehabilitation? More like a revolving door for the most expensive social housing system a bureaucracy could devise.

And now we're trying these clever ideas here. Any guesses how it's going to turn out?

"It means more people will be incarcerated," says Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

"It will lead to increased incarceration in three ways: longer mandatory sentences for those convicted, [through] the limits being placed on community service, and the much more difficult process it will be for prisoners to obtain graduated release into society at the completion of their terms," says Latimer

That's going to hit Saskatchewan taxpayers in the pocketbook. Saskatchewan ombudsman Ken Fenwick notes that our province's jails are already filled to twice their capacity.

Meanwhile, last year, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the state of California to start releasing prisoners to ease overcrowding in its prison system - to a level of 135 per cent capacity. The state that gave the world the 'three strikes and you're out' policy for criminals is now releasing hardened criminals back to its streets, at a time when the state's finances are in a mess.

Oklahoma and Texas are also abandoning their 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' sentencing orders, mostly because they can't afford it either.

Saskatchewan, already at a point where they're jailing more people per capita than those states, is being dragged into a right-wing public policy scheme that will make penitentiary operations a growing business. But as any ex-con or jail guard will tell you, penitentiaries are crime colleges - it's where cons are taught the basics of survival on the fringes.

When people go to jail, the 'get tough on crime' philosophy says what prisoners learn is that they don't want to go back to jail. But the longer the incarceration and the less programming available in a prison system to make prisoners better themselves, says Latimer, the more likely the incarcerated person will come out seeking to hone his/her new skills.

This is why, for the past generation or so, various Canadian governments have endeavoured to use jail sentencing as a last resort. Alternative measures to incarceration are not only cheaper to the taxpayer, they're also less likely to produce someone ready to plump up their criminal record with new misdeeds.

And minimum sentencing guidelines often backfire on investigators and prosecutors anyway, says Latimer. Take, for example, police and prosecutors investigating someone for incest - which under the new legislation would result in a minimum five-year jail sentence for those convicted.

Now, nobody wants someone who has sex with their child anywhere except behind bars and/or under psychiatric care - but in a twisted way, the threat of a longer sentence after a conviction may boomerang on prosecutors, says Latimer.

"If there's someone who's the victim in an incestuous relationship, and they want help - if they know that the person doing the act, the family's breadwinner, is going to be subjected to a five-year mandatory prison sentence, that's going to put pressure on the victim not to come forward," she says. "That could end up hurting the victim even more."

Criminology professor Neil Boyd points to the drug trade to show the problems with the Conservatives' crime bill. The problem with violence in the drug trade isn't caused by growing pot - it's caused by turf wars over who gets to sell the produce.

Logically, says the Simon Fraser University prof, the best thing to do would be to decriminalize the use of cannabis and other street drugs, and treat their use as a public health issue - not as a law enforcement issue.

"The best way to focus on the violence within the drug trade is to deal with the violence - and they [the Conservative government] have chosen not to do that," says Boyd.

"Under their legislation, the minimum sentence for someone caught growing six cannabis plants is six months in jail. But growing the plants doesn't cause the violence: it's the battles between gangs over the results of growing cannabis that result in violence in the drug trade," he says.

So what happens when you lock up more people? You end up with more criminals, says Boyd.

"They're going to be worse for the experience," he says. "They're going to be more dysfunctional in terms of their coping. They're going to find it harder to get a job. The jail experience doesn't do good things to people."

Canada could end up with a penal system similar to the United States - overcrowded, dysfunctional and a contributing factor to the various states' economic calamities, says Boyd.

"The United States has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world; it has one of the highest rates of re-incarceration in the world and it's mostly thanks to the harsh drug sentences imposed since 1985. And that war on drugs in the United States hasn't worked - drug use is still the same, per capita, as it was in 1986."

So why latch onto this policy?

"People on the extremes - whether the left or the right - don't pay attention to relevant data, and they have an ideology they want to bring to bear," says Boyd. "The worldview of the Harper government is very black-and-white. They see marijuana, for example, as a moral issue rather than as a public health issue."

"For them, it's not about evidence. It's about doing what they think is right."