Harper government misguided in its tough-on-crime approach

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/editorials
Published Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. Last updated Monday, Dec. 12, 2011.

Canada’s prison ombudsman gave up on free needle exchanges this week, and a senior justice adviser slammed the federal government for taking Canada backward on crime. They were separate events, but they reflect the frustration that many reform-minded people working in justice and corrections surely feel these days. Canada is heading to that awful place that the United States has just inhabited for 20 years – a place of longer and longer prison sentences, of a futile “war on drugs,” of mandatory minimum sentences for nearly everything (including six months for growing as few as five marijuana plants) that remove judges’ discretion. The financial and social costs in the U.S. were incalculable, and just as the U.S. is coming to its senses, Canada is losing its own.

David Daubney, a justice-department adviser, could have gone quietly into retirement. Instead, he tried to talk some sense back into this country. Prison overcrowding will worsen and breed violence, he told The Globe’s Kirk Makin in an exit interview. The tough-on-crime route has been tried and failed. The government knows what it knows, doesn’t listen to evidence and is reluctant to ask for research to be undertaken.

“The policy is based on fear – fear of criminals and fear of people who are different. I do not think these harsh views are deeply held.” It’s a good point. A new poll shows that 93 per cent of Canadians feel safe from crime. Why, then, spend billions of dollars to go backward?

Mr. Daubney has strong credentials. As an MP – in the Progressive Conservative Party – he chaired a justice committee that in 1988 recommended a greater focus on alternatives to jail. (Rob Nicholson, the current Justice Minister, was the vice-chair of that committee.) Mr. Daubney is also the chair of Penal Reform International – which works for the reduction of imprisonment and an end to capital punishment – and the 2011 winner of the International Prize for Restorative Justice.

“Somebody has to take the risk of talking,” he said.

Separately, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, after pushing since 2004 for needle exchanges as a means to control the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, has given up. The Public Health Agency of Canada said in 2006 said the exchanges reduce the sharing of dirty needles and don’t threaten prison security. The government isn’t interested; it prefers zero tolerance. “At some point you move on,” said Mr. Sapers.

At some point, government needs to take the risk of listening.

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