Harper government’s tough-on-crime laws are outdated
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime policies look outdated as the U.S. turns away from harsh drug sentences.
Aug 19 2013. Editorial
For 40 years, the United States conducted an unremitting, staggeringly expensive war on drugs.
For at least 30 of those years, Washington sent a succession of “drug czars” to Ottawa to press the Canadian government to get tough on dealers, traffickers and addicts.
Finally in 2006, the U.S. got a willing partner in Ottawa. Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office vowing to crack down on crime, get drugs and guns off the streets, lock up dangerous young offenders and reduce the discretion of judges to set lenient sentences.
It took the Prime Minister six years to get his controversial crime legislation through Parliament, but he finally succeeded last year. The centrepiece of his law-and-order agenda was a series of mandatory minimum sentences, many for drug crimes. They ranged from a jail term of six months for growing six or more marijuana plants to three years behind bars for operating a methamphetamine lab in a residential neighbourhood.
But now, with Canadian courts and prisons ramping up for more trials, more incarceration and longer sentences, the U.S. has changed direction. It is de-escalating its war on drugs, shelving mandatory minimums and allowing judges to divert non-violent offenders into drug treatment and job training programs.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a direction-changing speech this past week. He told the nation’s lawyers the White House was ordering “a fundamentally new approach.”
The reasons for the shift were painfully obvious. The crime rate was falling. The cost of keeping 1.57 million Americans in overcrowded prisons — roughly $800 billion a year — was more than U.S. taxpayers could bear. The public had soured on the Nixon-era tactics that police and prosecutors used to put drug offenders who posed no risk to society behind bars for decades. And there was little evidence that draconian penalties imposed on street dealers were cutting into the drug trade. Holder admitted as much in his speech to the American Bar Association. “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”
Rather than attempting to dismantle the mandatory minimum sentences enacted by his predecessors — which would have taken years — Holder directed prosecutors to sidestep them by omitting details (the quantity of the illegal substance, for example) that would force judges to assign jail time. The result won’t be instantaneous. Some hawkish prosecutors will ignore Washington’s signal. Some judges will hold back, awaiting further details. But America’s spare-no-cost campaign to stamp out narcotics is essentially over.
This leaves Harper in the lurch. After scrambling for six years to catch up with the U.S. he finds himself out of step with Washington again. His crime legislation, designed for the George Bush era, is an anachronism in the Barack Obama presidency.
Fortunately, Ottawa’s sentencing laws aren’t as harsh as the ones Washington is neutralizing. And they haven’t been in force long enough to produce a massive expansion in jail-building or a dramatic increase in the prison population. But in terms of tone and direction, Harper is at marching in the opposite direction from his U.S. counterpart.
The Prime Minister is unlikely to do an about-face. The crime bill is one of the few concrete achievements he can claim in a term marred by pipeline woes, a sluggish economy, difficulty achieving a free trade deal with Europe and wrongdoing in the Senate.
But Holder’s policy shift and the compelling case he made that widespread incarceration for non-violent drug crimes “is both ineffective and unsustainable” may induce Harper to temper his zeal for locking up young men lured into the drug trade. It could also embolden prosecutors to draw up charges in ways that don’t lead to mandatory jail sentences. Looking ahead to the 2015 election, it will give both the Liberals and New Democrats solid ground on which build to platforms that emphasize rehabilitation, drug treatment and restitution, as opposed to ever more imprisonment.
The U.S. attorney general appealed to battle-weary Americans to help him build a more just society. Canadians know that phrase well. It’s worth reviving.
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