The Tories’ tough-on-crime agenda is intellectually bankrupt

Posted on October 19, 2011 in Child & Family Debates

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Oct 19, 2011.    Jonathan Kay

The biggest problem for opponents of Bill C-10, the federal government’s omnibus tough-on-crime bill, is that criminals and prisoners have no political constituency. The sort of people who will get swept up in the mandatory minimum sentences contained in the bill are dismissed by most voters as street thugs, pedophiles and gang members. Lock ‘em up is what most of us say.

Eugene Oscapella, a veteran legal-reform advocate, knows this. And so he is careful to make his pitch in terms that respectable, middle-class Canadians — the sort of people with kids in high school or college — will appreciate.

“I teach a criminology course at the University of Ottawa,” he told a crowd at downtown Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer on Tuesday night. “Eighty percent of my students [would be] criminals under [Bill C-10]. About 10-20% of them would be liable for a mandatory minimum sentence of two years for simply passing a tablet of ecstasy at a party on the university campus. That is what this law is going to do.”

Smoking pot and taking ecstasy aren’t smart things to do. But millions of Canadians use these drugs every day. And when they’re caught, police, prosecutors and judges typically apply their discretion in order to avoid ruining their lives and careers with criminal records and jail sentences. The Tories want to change that — for reasons that can’t be explained except by the crass politics of populism.

As my colleague Chris Selley wrote in Wednesday’s edition of the National Post, the mandatory-minimum provisions for non-violent drug crimes are the least defensible aspects of Bill C-10. In fact, the government hasn’t even tried to make an intellectually serious attempt to defend them. The Canadian government’s web site points visitors to several Justice Department studies on mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. None strongly support the idea that Bill C-10 will reduce drug use or improve public safety. “The evidence points the other way,” Mr. Oscapella noted on Tuesday night. “The only thing we’re going to do is overcrowd the system.”

Governments have to make trade-offs, of course: Sometimes, you accept sub-optimal policy for budgetary reasons. But here we get to the especially perverse aspect of the mandatory-minimum drug provisions of Bill C-10: They will cost billions in the form of police resources and new prisons. That’s why cash-strapped American states — which have long played the populist game of lock-’em-up — are moving in the other direction.

As the CBC’s Terry Milewski reported this week, Texas officials think we’re nuts for copying their discredited approach. Michigan, New York, California and other states are also doing what they can to reduce their prison populations. One of the reasons the United States is going bankrupt is that it incarcerates 2.3 million people — a quarter of all the prisoners on earth. The burden for their care has become so enormous that some states are now turning prisons into Chinese-style sweatshops to try to make a buck. A private prison industry has flourished, bringing with it a well-funded lobby for yet more prisons. This perverse political dynamic doesn’t yet exist in Canada — but Bill C-10 pushes us in that direction.

The C-10 panel discussion at the Church of the Redeemer was interesting because at least one of the speakers wasn’t the sort of bleeding heart you’d expect. Steve Sullivan, Canada’s first federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, has been an advocate in the field since the early 1990s, and currently directs Ottawa’s municipal Victim Services program.

Mr. Sullivan applauds a few provisions in C-10, such as the section that would let crime victims attend parole hearings, and enhanced penalties for child abusers. (There also was appreciation for provisions that would allow some offenders to be diverted to drug-treatment programs.) But he believes that one of the main priority of the government’s criminal-justice policy should be to encourage victims of domestic and sex abuse (the majority of whom suffer in silence) to report their crimes; and the bill doesn’t do anything to further than objective. In fact, the bill may be counterproductive: By forcing the hand of already-overworked crown prosecutors, it will encourage them to stay, delay or plea-bargain many of their cases.

Even as things stand, prosecutors can only prosecute about 10% of their caseload, by Mr. Sullivan’s estimate. C-10 may push that number into single digits.

When proponents of C-10 are confronted with its multi-billion-dollar cost, they respond by citing the even greater cost of crime itself — an estimated $83-billion a year in this country — the majority of which is borne by victims. “That’s a true statistic,” Mr. Sullivan acknowledged on Tuesday. “But the reality is that [C-10] doesn’t address this. It’s not going to relieve the burden on crime victims … There’s nothing in this bill that’s going to cause [victims] to come forward, or to leave abusive relationships.”

The most interesting aspect of Tuesday night’s panel on C-10 was the inclusion of Greg Simmons, a 46-year-old university student and former cocaine dealer who spent 14 years of his life in the federal prison system. As one might predict, he was skeptical of the idea that mandatory minimums would do much to discourage crime. In some cases, he said, it might have the opposite effect: “When I was doing my thing, there were times when I thought, ‘if I’m going in [to commit a crime], I might as well go in with gusto. I’m not going back to prison. I’m never going to let them take me back.’ This bill creates that mindset.”

Does it? I’m not a criminologist, and I couldn’t say one way or the other. But I did find it odd to reflect on the fact that — despite all the punditry and propaganda about C-10 — this was the first time I had ever heard a real, live, former prisoner give his opinion on the subject. Instead, I’ve mostly heard from middle-aged, middle-class blowhards like myself who wouldn’t know cocaine from sweet ‘n low. And that disturbs me.

Putting aside my objections to the mandatory minimums contained in C-10, and the prison-happy agenda it epitomizes, the bill represents something larger and more disturbing in our country: a complete divorce between policy-making that affects millions of people, and real-life research and experiences offered by men such as Messrs. Simmons, Oscapella and Sullivan. Stephen Harper and his cabinet ministers bristle when they are accused of inflicting an “ideological” agenda on Canada. So I put the question to them: In the absence of evidence or expertise to back up your policy, what other word would you offer me?

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