There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to crime. One is to punish offenders for their misdeeds; the other is to rehabilitate them. Canadian courts have long favoured the latter.
Yet, the prime minister’s party this week introduced its long-awaited bill that will bring us more in line with the failed system of the United States, where increasingly punitive laws have ballooned prison populations and cost taxpayers billions. The introduction of minimum sentences for certain crimes will give judges less leeway to consider the specifics of cases and instead force them to hand down one-size-fits-all punishments.
The price of imprisoning more people for longer is a steep one. When the Tories took office in 2006, Canada spent about $1.6 billion per year on its prisons; by 2013-14 that number is expected to almost double to over $3 billion.
The reasons for passing stricter criminal laws are emotionally satisfying, of course. People who break the law should be punished. “Hard crime deserves hard time” and the like.
But this plays on the commonly held belief that crime is always rising when, in fact, crime is at its lowest point since 1973 and has been steadily declining for the last two decades.
Even the name of the proposed law, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, suggests that our streets and communities are currently overrun by violent criminals who are only running amok by the grace of our lenient court system. If only someone could lock these people up and throw away the key!
Among the most disturbing aspects of the Conservatives’ view of crime is the emphasis on stricter drug laws. Far from common sense proposals like decriminalizing marijuana and other minor drugs, the Conservatives have been pushing to criminalize even more Canadians by adding the hallucinogenic drug salvia to Schedule 3 Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Violators would face up to three years for smoking the intense but harmless plant.
And it is the nonsensical War on Drugs that has, more than anything, turned Americans into the world’s most prolific jailers. About one in 100 Americans are behind bars due to this “war” and other tough-on-crime measures. Canada’s future looks grim if politicians refuse to heed the grim example set by our neighbours to the south.
Canadian politics was, for the last several years, more of a spectator sport than it had been for a long time. Now with a majority in place, the Conservatives are likely to take more chances on unpopular or unwise laws, hoping that the public either ignores or forgets their passage before the next election in 2015. Meanwhile, a reduced Liberal Party and leaderless NDP will not be able to stop Harper as they did in years past.
Numerous groups have already spoken out against the new crime bill, including the Canadian Bar Association, which represents about 37,000 lawyers, judges, notaries, law teachers and law students from across the country. This government hasn’t been known to listen to evidence and experts in the past — think climate change policy and last year’s cancellation of the long-form census — and the proposed crime laws are another step in this direction.
When a government minister was asked last year about the need for stricter laws amid falling crime, he pointed to the rise in “unreported crime” as reason to get tough. Of course, how one prosecutes criminals for unreported crime is an open question, but it proves that reason will not stop the Conservatives in their pledge to reshape Canada’s functional justice system in their own image, all to appease their narrow base of supporters.
Only vocal public outrage can put the brakes on the government’s crime agenda. Unfortunately, it looks like the Conservatives have found a messaging strategy that will always win over evidence. After all, who doesn’t want safer streets and communities?
UPDATE: More of the specifics of the crime bill are now available.
photo: The Prime Minister’s Office/Flickr