Time to rethink jail sentences

TheStar.com – Opinion/editorial – Time to rethink jail sentences
July 26, 2008

Mandatory minimum sentences sound like a good idea, at least in theory. After all, it seems to make sense that automatic jail time for serious offences would deter would-be criminals, force overly lenient judges into line and keep bad actors off the street.

That’s why mandatory minimum sentences have gained currency across Canada’s political spectrum as spasms of violence have gripped Toronto and other cities. Concerned by shocking instances of gun violence, the Star itself has supported stiffening mandatory minimum sentences for serious gun crimes.

But a provocative Star series on crime and punishment, which concludes today, has raised troubling questions about the effectiveness, costs (economic and social) and unintended consequences of mandatory minimum sentences. These concerns ought to be answered before this country heads any further down that path, just as some jurisdictions in the United States are going in the opposite direction.

Reacting to widespread outrage over horrifying crimes such as the Boxing Day 2005 shooting death of 15-year-old Jane Creba, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has made mandatory minimum sentences a key plank in its criminal justice policy. Canadian law already provided for about 40 mandatory minimum sentences. But this spring, a new law took effect that toughened mandatory sentences for serious gun crimes. It was supported by Premier Dalton McGuinty, Mayor David Miller and other politicians who could hardly be described as right wing.

The federal government is also proposing to add a range of drug production and trafficking offences to the list of crimes for which judges must impose minimum sentences.

Expanding mandatory minimum sentences may allay public fears and allow politicians to claim they are getting “tough on crime.” But as the Star’s series suggests, it is not necessarily sound policy.

The U.S. experience provides a cautionary tale. Since the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences there, prison populations and costs have ballooned but the impact on crime rates has been questionable, prompting some states to reconsider their policies.

In Canada, there are worries that more mandatory minimums will only exacerbate a shortage of rehabilitation programs and space in prisons and sow the seeds of recidivism. Already marginalized groups will bear the brunt – particularly aboriginals, who are overrepresented in the federal prison population.

Mandatory minimums may also pervert justice and drive up costs by prompting some accused, whether guilty or not, to plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid automatic jail terms.

Finally, by focusing on sentencing, governments have turned their attention away from efforts to tackle the root causes of crime, including poverty.

In light of the questions this series has raised, Parliament should take a hard look at mandatory minimum sentences before it expands them any further in a headlong rush for easy fixes.

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