Tories revive mandatory sentences for drug crimes

NationalPost.com – News
Published: Friday, May 07, 2010.   Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service

OTTAWA – Tenants caught growing as few as six marijuana plants in their dwellings could face automatic jail terms of at least nine months, under a federal drug-sentencing bill revived Wednesday that imposes harsher penalties on home renters than on owners.

The bill, introduced for the third time after dying twice before, proposes mandatory minimum jail terms for a variety of drug-related crimes, removing discretion for judges to sentence as they see fit.

The Harper government’s proposed legislation imposes stiffer punishment on renters than it does on homeowners, because involving a third party is one of several aggravating factors.

“It is going to have a really detrimental affect on young people,” predicted Tara Lyons, a fourth-year sociology student at Carleton University in Ottawa.

“More young people rent dwellings because they can’t afford to buy their own, so this bill sets up a situation where the policies are crafted in the name of protecting children, but they are just presenting more harm to young people.”

The bill proposes to impose mandatory minimum terms for other drug-trafficking crimes, ranging from one to three years.

Ms. Lyons, executive director of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, was one of more than a dozen witnesses who urged the federal government, during House of Commons committee hearings last spring, to scrap its drug-sentencing bill.

The bar for being caught growing marijuana for the purposes of trafficking is generally five plants, which would garner a minimum six-month jail term.

However, for anyone captured under any of the broad aggravating factors, the minimum jail term is increased to nine months. It goes up to a one-year minimum for growing up to 200 plants for the purpose of selling, and two years for up to 500 plants.

Other aggravating factors include such things as whether a weapon was found on the premises, whether the location was considered unsafe, and whether the pot production posed a danger to the public in a residential area.

The Senate, which considered the bill last fall, increased the bar to 200 plants for garnering automatic incarceration, but left it at five in cases involving aggravating factors.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson on Wednesday ignored the Senate amendments and resurrected his bill as it passed in the House of Commons last June, with the support of the Liberals.

His last bill was in its final stages in the Senate when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in December. An earlier incarnation of the same bill died when Harper called the 2008 general election.

New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, a vocal opponent of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes, warned Wednesday that mandatory terms for drug crimes will cost billions because they will “clog up” the prison system.

Moreover, Mr. Nicholson has refused to supply any evidence that mandatory minimums deter crime, she said.

“He could not offer anything,” said Davies. “This approach that they’re running with is based on this U.S. experience that has been a colossal failure both politically, economically, and from a justice point of view. Why would we be crazy enough to repeat that in Canada?”

Two studies prepared for the Justice Department, one in 2002 and the other in 2005, say that mandatory minimums do not work.

Mr. Nicholson said his bill is designed to “send a message” that “if you sell or produce drugs, you’ll pay with jail time.”

Several witnesses warned the justice committee last year that the proposed legislation would fill jails with addicts rather than drug kingpins, who will continue to thrive while small-time dealers are knocked out of commission.

The Harper government’s bill comes at a time when several American states have retreated from mandatory minimum sentences, saying they are a glaring symbol of the failed U.S. war on drugs.

The United States experience in the last 25 years has shown that mandatory minimum sentences have flooded jails, with a disproportionate effect on drug addicts, the poor, the young, blacks and other minorities.

The U.S. surpasses every other country by far in incarceration rates and, meanwhile, the drug business has flourished.

The proposed legislation would impose one-year mandatory jail time for marijuana dealing, when it is linked to organized crime or a weapon is involved.

The sentence would be increased to two years for dealing drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine to young people, or pushing drugs near a school or other places frequented by youths.

There are already more than two dozen minimum prison terms in the Criminal Code, mainly for murder and offences involving firearms.

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