Learning a lesson from America’s failed war on drugs
NationalPost.com – FullComment
Feb 23, 2012. Jesse Kline
On Wednesday, 28 current and former American law enforcement officials wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of the Canadian Senate urging the decriminalization of marijuana and warning against the effects of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
Before anyone gets up-in-arms about Americans sticking their noses into our business, consider that many of these people have been directly involved in crafting and enforcing America’s war on drugs. They all belong to the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which includes a number of Canadian board members.
One of the signatories to the letter is Eric E. Sterling, who helped U.S. politicians write minimum sentencing laws in the 1980s, in his role as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. “Imposing long jail terms for minor drug offences has been a mistake in the United States, and won’t work in Canada,” Mr. Sterling told the CBC.
And he should know, as the tough-on-crime laws developed in the 1980s and ‘90s led directly to America’s out of control prison population. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration rates in the United States between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 inmates per 100,000 people. After 1980, that number began to skyrocket: Increasing to 753 by 2008. In comparison, Canada’s rate remained fairly steady between 2006 and 2010, at about 140 prisoners for every 100,000 people, according to Statistics Canada.
The increase in the U.S. prison population had nothing to do with an increase in actual crime. Rates of violent and property crimes have decreased significantly since the ‘80s — in both the United States and Canada. The increase in American prison populations is directly related to mandatory minimum and three-strikes-you’re-out laws. Upwards of 60% of U.S. prisoners have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes; 20% of all inmates have been locked away for non-violent drug-related offences — double the percentage in 1980. This trend has cost taxpayers a great deal.
State correctional spending is four times what it was 20 years ago — totalling $52-billion a year and increasing faster than any other budget item. States, such as California, with huge budget deficits literally cannot afford the expense. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, which mandated that state penitentiaries release approximately 30,000 inmates, in order to decrease overcrowded prisons that were at double their intended capacity. But this does not necessarily mean releasing violent criminals onto the street. In 2010, California was holding 25,000 people for drug offences — over 8,500 for drug possession, and about 1,400 on marijuana charges.
If Canada is to avoid going down the same path, the simple solution would be to lessen the punishment for marijuana-related offences and use our limited resources to cut down on violent crimes. When the Liberals mused about decriminalizing marijuana in the 1990s, there were real worries about how the U.S. government would react. But as the LEAP letter points out, many states have already reformed their drug laws:
“In recent years, marijuana policies in the United States have become much more progressive than those in Canada. For instance, 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing some degree of medical use for marijuana, and 14 states have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana possession.”
Unfortunately, Bill C-10, the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill, takes this country in the opposite direction: Imposing harsh minimum sentences for marijuana offences. So harsh, that as Ethan Baron pointed out in Vancouver’s Provincenewspaper, the minimum sentence for growing 201 plants would be the same as for someone convicted of raping a child; the maximum sentence for growing pot would increase to 14 years, “four years more than for someone sexually assaulting a kid without using a weapon.”
It is the unfortunate truth that we hear, on virtually a daily basis, stories of people of who have committed heinous crimes getting off with a slap on the wrist and repeat offenders being put back on Canadian streets. There is little doubt that our criminal justice system needs to be reformed — we need tougher sentences for repeat offenders and truth-in-sentencing provisions (no more get-out-of-jail-free cards after serving 1/3 of an already lenient sentence). But giving pot growers harsher sentences than child rapists is unconscionable, and shows that the law is completely devoid of any moral relevancy.
The omnibus crime bill is currently being studies in the Senate, and the government has pledged to make some changes. I would strongly encourage the government to learn a lesson from the experience in the United States, and do away with the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, including marijuana offences.
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