Don’t adopt U.S.-style drug laws, groups warn Conservative government

Posted on February 23, 2012 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/canada/politics
Published On Wed Feb 22 2012.   Tonda MacCharles, Ottawa Bureau

As the Conservatives’ massive crime bill nears its final stages of parliamentary approval, a Canadian group of judges, lawyers, and policy advisers has emerged to urge a “smarter” approach to tackling crime.

Calling itself the “Smarter Justice Network,” the group publicly stepped forward on a day that a similar but unrelated American group released an open letter urging the Canadian government to avoid mandatory jail terms for drug crimes that have been a “costly failure” in the United States.

The two have much in common. They count in their ranks retired judges, lawyers, criminal law policy advisers, victims and offender advocates.

They oppose mandatory sentencing regimes that remove judicial discretion, which are sprinkled throughout Bill C-10 — the so-called “Safe Streets and Communities Act” — that is in the final days of Senate hearings here.

Citing overcrowded jails and “countless ruined lives,” the American group — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) — is made up mostly of retired American police officers, judges, and criminal law policy advisers opposed to a zero-tolerance approach to drugs. They released on Wednesday their open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and senators.

“We are individuals who were deeply involved with the war on drugs and have now accepted, due to our own experience and the clear evidence before us, that these policies are a costly failure. We changed our minds and we encourage you to do the same,” they write.

The Canadian group is a non-partisan network of influential individuals who have been deeply involved in all aspects of the Canadian justice system: judicial, prosecutorial, policy-making and advocacy for victims and offenders.

Beyond drugs, they are more broadly worried about the cumulative impact of C-10, its mandatory sentencing rules, and what they see as the Conservative government’s regressive, “reactive,” “costly and ineffective” approach to crime, corrections and parole.

The Smarter Justice Network includes David Daubney and Catherine Latimer, both senior federal Justice Department policy advisers. Latimer is now with the John Howard Society. Daubney, a former PC MP once chaired the Commons standing justice committee and led a year-long study on parole and corrections that produced the Daubney Report.

It also counts on its chairing committee: John Edwards, former commissioner of the Correctional Services of Canada; Willie Gibbs, former chairman of the National Parole Board; Ed McIsaac, former executive director of the federal Correctional Investigators office; retired Judge James Chadwick, once senior judge for Eastern Ontario; Steve Sullivan, the first Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime; Lorraine Berzins, who until recently led the Church Council on Justice and Corrections; UBC professor and prison reform advocate Michael Jackson; former N.S. Liberal Party leader Danny Graham, a defence lawyer seconded to the Justice Department for a couple of years; the Elizabeth Fry Society’s executive director Kim Pate; and Judge Barry Stuart, the former chief judge of the Yukon territorial court who initiated sentencing circles in the North and is now working with the missing aboriginal women’s inquiry in B.C.

Both groups might be too late.

The Senate is hearing from witnesses before a final vote to approve Bill C-10. The bill would amend nine laws and, among other things, create new mandatory minimum prison sentences for a range of crimes, such as six months for possession of as few as six marijuana plants. It passed the Commons and is certain to pass the Senate’s review, as the Conservatives hold a majority.

Indeed, when Barry Stuart testified Wednesday against the punitive thrust of Bill C-10, Conservative senators Bob Runciman and Daniel Lang pointed the finger at judges.

They said inconsistent and lax rulings against violent and repeat offenders eroded public confidence in the justice system and are the reason the government must act.

In an interview, Daubney said the Conservatives are bringing in “very retributive legislation that will not make Canada any safer, and quite the contrary will make us more unsafe.”

It will lead to higher rates of incarceration for aboriginal offenders, who now make up 22 per cent of the federal prison population, though they make up just 4 per cent of the general Canadian population, he said. The elimination of judicial discretion will also worsen matters for mentally ill offenders, added Daubney.

The American group’s letter flags the costly “failure of U.S. crime policies that those proposed in the Canadian federal government’s Bill C-10 legislation seem to be modelled on.”

“These policies have bankrupted state budgets as limited tax dollars pay to imprison non-violent drug offenders at record rates instead of programs that can actually improve community safety.”

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