Youth offender plan rides wave of fear – Federal Election – Youth offender plan rides wave of fear: Stephen Harper wants to copy U.S. measures but there is no evidence that they deter crime
September 26, 2008. Errol Mendes

In his divide-and-conquer strategy designed to pit Canadians against one another, Stephen Harper launched an election campaign attack against “ivory-tower” academics who point out that his plan to put 14-year-olds into prison for life and publicly disclose the name of young offenders makes no sense in terms of deterrence and is counter to decades of lessons learned on juvenile crime.

Harper argues that ordinary Canadians (who are not artists) know better, especially those who are affected by juvenile crime, who will ignore the ivory-tower academics.

While Harper is dreaming of riding his politics of fear of crime to a majority in this election, some of his U.S. conservative compatriots, who are anything but ivory-tower academics, are having second thoughts about the Republican approach to law and order that Harper is now promoting.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that not only liberal, but conservative judges in the U.S. are hoping that Congress or the Supreme Court will move away from mandatory sentences to give them leeway to impose shorter and fairer sentences. U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, an appointee of George W. Bush and former law clerk to one of the most conservative Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia, is quoted as saying: “When I have to sentence a midlevel drug dealer to more time than a murderer, something is wrong … This is not about being soft on crime … I believe in tough sentences for severe crimes.”

The Times finds that the root of the problem lies in the simplistic U.S. approach in the 1970s to the “war on drugs,” the mistakes of which the Harper government seems determined to repeat.

Congress had passed mandatory sentences for crimes involving drugs and guns, and also passed mandatory sentences for other federal crimes. What the mandatory rules accomplished was overcrowded prisons, with 181,622 convicts in federal prisons compared with 24,363 in 1980.

When the states followed with their own mandatory sentences, the U.S. prison population ballooned to 2.3 million, up from 501,886 in 1980. The effect of ignoring the ivory-tower academics has been to warehouse entire sections of the U.S. population in prisons with little effect on the crime rate.

Academic studies have cast doubt on whether the mandatory sentences in the U.S. have acted as a deterrent, and there is no real evidence that states that have mandatory sentences had any different crimes rates than those that do not. In fact, demographic and socioeconomic factors had a greater impact on decreasing crime rates than the imposition of mandatory sentences.

Even Bush’s attorney general, Michael Mukasey – definitely not an ivory-tower academic – has argued against mandatory sentencing. He even went to the extent of suggesting that mandatory sentences could violate the U.S. constitutional principle of the separation of powers.

A similar argument could well find its way into Canadian courts against the slew of mandatory sentences that have been pushed by Harper and the Conservatives.

There is also the distinct probability that the Supreme Court could strike down any law that puts children in prison for life and destroys any hope for rehabilitation.

Now, during this election campaign, Harper is threatening that even if he is returned with a minority, he will put his proposed law on putting children in prison for life – destroying their chance at rehabilitation by naming them – to a confidence vote. That creates the possibility of yet another $300 million election right after this one, if the opposition does not meekly agree to him.

This is not governing. This is bullying on a massive and hugely expensive scale that ordinary Canadians should reject.

Errol P. Mendes is a professor of constitutional, international and human rights law at the University of Ottawa.

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