Timely warning for Canada about prisons
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Sep 08 2011. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Just in time for the opening of Parliament, a new book entitled A Plague of Prisons has landed in Canada.
It tells the story of the “mass incarceration” of Americans over the past 30 years, showing how it has torn families apart, exacerbated racial tensions, drained state treasuries and fostered a culture of violence and vengeance.
The author, Ernest Drucker, an epidemiologist at The City University of New York, begins his tale with the passage of tough new state sentencing laws in 1973. Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of the day, was determined to get drug dealers off New York’s streets. He persuaded the legislature to enact mandatory prison sentences, requiring judges to send lawbreakers convicted of selling two ounces of “narcotic drugs” to jail for at least 15 years and stripping them of any discretion to take into account extenuating circumstances.
Over the next 25 years, New York’s prison population increased fivefold.
Other states quickly jumped on the wagon, imposing evermore onerous sentences on non-violent criminals. The hunger to punish reached its apex in 1994, when California enacted its Three Strikes and You’re Out law, requiring sentences of 25 years to life for three-time offenders. Individuals caught shoplifting or stiffing a contractor became old men behind bars.
These policies were popular among angry, anxious voters. But they did not produce any reduction in the drug trade, nor did they prevent crime.
Between 1980 and 2009, America’s prison population quintupled. It now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world (715 inmates per 100,000 people).
What makes all this relevant to Canadians in September of 2011 is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is poised to embark on the same path the U.S. took a generation ago. Shortly after the opening of Parliament, his government will introduce a package of 12 tough crime bills. They’re guaranteed to become law; the Conservatives now have a majority in both the House of Commons and Senate.
Harper’s legislation is not as draconian as Rockefeller’s. It would require Canadian judges to impose a mandatory one-year sentence for possession of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine with the intention of trafficking (two years if a weapon or threat of violence is involved) and a six-month to three-year sentence for selling recreational marijuana. But it springs from the same crackdown mentality and taps into the same belief that harsh punishment reduces crime.
What makes Drucker’s book compelling is not the statistics he presents; most of them are well known. It is the way he traces the explosion of America’s prison population back to one politician’s gut-driven policies and the way he uses his skills as a clinical psychologist to track the consequences on the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx.
Drucker wrote his analysis as a wake-up call to his fellow Americans, not as a warning to Canada. But it offers readers on this side of the border a foretaste of what lies ahead if Harper ignores the advice of everyone from health-care professionals to toppled media magnate Conrad Black, who has seen the American justice system from the inside.
Assuming the Prime Minister goes ahead, here is what Canadians can expect:
• An exponential growth in prisons. The Conservatives have refused to provide taxpayers with a credible estimate of how much they plan to spend on penitentiaries. It won’t be as costly as the American crackdown, which threatens to bankrupt several states, but the bills will keep mounting long after Harper’s departure.
• A deterioration of the social structures that communities need to prevent crime.
• A disproportionate increase in the number of poor, non-white people behind bars.
• A belated recognition that there was never any evidence tougher sentences improve public safety.
• And over time, a made-in-Ottawa “plague of prisons.”
Is this the legacy we want for our children? Is it the future we want for Canada?