Canada is one Senate vote away from becoming the most regressive Western democracy on criminal justice. That unenviable position has most recently been occupied by the United States. But even though some of the most conservative Republicans are now arguing against over-incarceration, Canada continues to pursue that objective.
Americans have recently recognized that incarcerating 2.3 million people does not reduce the crime rate. Consequently, state after state has rolled back mandatory minimum sentences, draconian penalties, harsh parole eligibility and so on. Canada, on the contrary, is implementing all of these, plus mean-minded pardon and international prisoner transfer provisions.
A variety of constituents, including some surprising ones, have pleaded with the Conservative government to rethink its tough-on-crime agenda. Correctional officials, police chiefs, medical associations, victims advocates, prison guards, former attorneys-general and justice ministers, lawyers and judges and criminologists, people who have spent their lives learning what works to reduce crime—all of these have warned against the consequences of Bill C-10.
A few days ago, we learned that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews does not understand what is in his own cyber surveillance law, Bill C-30. He is sensibly considering amendments to this bill in response to the surprising (to him) news that it is too intrusive; also to the outrage expressed by the public.
It is likely that Mr. Toews also had no idea about the repercussions and unintended consequences of his omnibus crime bill. Did he know, for example, that growing six marijuana plants could attract a longer sentence than distributing, say, cocaine or methamphetamine in any amount? Did he know that growing six plants could mean more time in prison than molesting a child? Yet he and Minister Nicholson maintain a mulish steadfastness in the face of such indisputable evidence against its provisions. Why?
Bill C-10 will result in serious inconsistencies and distortions of the justice system. Police, Crown Attorneys and Judges will be struggling to deal with the unfairness of the legislation and with the overloaded courts. They will all be trying to find ways to avoid the most egregious injustices. Citizens will refuse to lay minor charges if they know of the severe penalties. Juries will refuse to convict.
Offenders facing mandatory minimums will fight criminal charges with lengthy motions, trials and appeals, clogging up the courts. Many offenders will finally be released without a hearing under the Askov rule, which was based upon the right to be tried within a reasonable time. Prison overcrowding and violence will continue to increase.
The financial costs of the bill will make the cost of fighter jets look like walking-around money. Provinces and territories will bear the brunt of these costs. When the Justice Minister says that the federal government pays for the prosecution of drug charges, and that these comprise a large part of Bill C-10, he is misleading Canadians. The feds do pay for drug prosecutors, but all of the other costs—the more significant costs--are borne by the provinces and territories. Court rooms, judges, sheriffs, clerks, parole officers, probation officers, provincial prisons—all of these and more are the responsibility of provinces and territories.
Canada is already disgracefully one of the most regressive western democracies in the world on issues like the environment, growing militarization, reductions in social programs, climate change, the treatment of Aboriginal people, refugee policy, and on and on. We are about to add one more area of public policy to that depressing list—the disaster that is the omnibus crime bill.
Paula Mallea is is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the author of Fearmonger, a critique of Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda.