Harper’s incoherent crime policy
NationalPost.com – FullComment
Feb 14, 2012. By R. Roy McMurtry, Edward L. Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob
With all the talk about the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill, it would be easy to miss the real significance of the Prime Minister’s crime policy. The debate has focused largely on important but narrow issues such as whether people should be sentenced to a minimum of six or nine months in prison for growing six marijuana plants or whether we should stigmatize young people found guilty of minor assaults by publishing their names, and whether our laws should prohibit certain non-prison punishments for crimes such as break-and-enter.
The sum of the Harper crime policy is simultaneously less and more than the sum of its parts. The more fundamental issue that a crime policy should address is basic: How do we, as Canadians, want to respond to those who have committed crimes?
A starting point might be to consider a few simple truths about crime that need to be considered in a sensible overall crime policy.
- Many young Canadians commit relatively minor offences — drug possession, breaking-and-entering, shoplifting — that could see them imprisoned.
- As people get older, they become dramatically less likely to commit offences.
- In many cases, if someone avoids reoffending for five to 15 years, their odds of committing a crime again become the same as the segment of the population that has never offended.
- About 262,000 people are found guilty of criminal offences each year. Eighty-six thousand go to prison, at a cost of up to $117,000 per year per inmate.
- Compared to rehabilitation in the community, prison makes people more likely to reoffend (though, of course, in some instances, prison is the only option).
- One in seven Canadian males has a criminal record.
- There are known, effective ways to reduce crime. Changing criminal laws alone will have little if any impact on crime.
The Harper crime policy is less than the sum of its parts because it does not add up to a crime policy that addresses, or even acknowledges, these basic facts. It squanders resources that could be used to reduce crime. Making it more difficult for people to get out from under the shadow of their much earlier offences (through a pardon or “record suspension”) makes it harder for millions of Canadians with criminal records to reintegrate into society. Adding mandatory minimum penalties will do nothing to deter offenders, who, the data demonstrate, do not expect to get caught.
But the Harper crime policy is more than the sum of its parts because it tells us that the government is committed to ignoring evidence about crime, and does not care about whether our criminal-justice system is just and humane.
The student who grows six marijuana plants in her rented apartment to share with friends will soon face a mandatory minimum sentence of nine months in prison. Meanwhile, assaults have no mandatory minimum sentences. The law says that trial judges are required to impose sentences proportional to their seriousness and the offender’s responsibility for the offence. Is someone who grows six marijuana plants much more dangerous than someone who grows five (for which there is no minimum sentence)? Or who commits an assault? The Harper Tories seemingly think so.
The government has closed its eyes to the possibility that people convicted of a crime can turn their lives around or be fundamentally good people who made one mistake. So they eliminate pardons, or arbitrarily make them more difficult to obtain. Vic Toews, the Minister of Public Safety, has proposed that the application fee for a pardon be raised from $150 to $631, saying, “We believe that ordinary Canadians shouldn’t have to be footing the bill for a criminal asking for a pardon.” Look carefully at his words. Citizens don’t get pardons, criminals do, even if that criminal has lived crime free, paid their taxes and perhaps even voted Conservative for 20 years.
The Tories are right that their incoherent crime plan is a major shift in Canadian justice policy. But this shift will not serve us well.
R. Roy McMurtry was attorney-general and subsequently chief justice of Ontario. Edward L. Greenspan is a Toronto criminal lawyer. Anthony N. Doob is a professor of criminology (emeritus) at the University of Toronto.
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