Commentary | Don’t get locked up, Harper

Keep mandatory minimums to a minimum

I’ve recently become aware of the rhetoric in defence of Bill C-10, the “tough on crime” bill going through Canadian Parliament. It argued that the Left’s political movement against the Bill was filled with “hug-a-thugs,” a pithy expression the right coined for those that oppose their draconian legislation. It clouded the debate by claiming that opposing the Bill is tantamount to opposing its stricter penalties for child pornographers and human traffickers – who are not the main targets of the bill – and that the foundation of the criminal justice system is rooted in a philosophy of retribution for crimes. I agree wholeheartedly that the judicial system should assign appropriate punishments for individual’s respective offenses. Yet, this crime Bill does not do that. Instead,  it targets those who commit non-violent crime who would be better served by being reformed rather than incarcerated. The bill also limits judges’ abilities to set punishments by establishing mandatory minimums, the most lenient sentence that the convicted must serve, which across-the-board has been shown to be ineffective and immoral. Proper legislation is needed that can make proper distinctions between those situations for imprisonment and those for rehabilitation.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no sympathy for child rapists and kidnappers, but legislators need to get out of the courtroom. If they continue down this path, they will follow the same endless road of incarceration that former US President Ronald Reagan did in the US during the 1980s. Statistics and common sense point to the fact that Reagan’s “tough on crime” policy was a failure. Indeed, when the movement began after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the population in prison due to nonviolent drug convictions was 50,000; by 1997, the number of inmates exploded to 400,000. Total incarceration quadrupled.  This was the culmination of irrational policies such as instituting a minimum five-year sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine – a few sugar packets worth.  The United States now incarcerates not only a higher percentage, but a higher actual number of people, than the Soviet Union did under the authoritarianism of the USSR. 80 per cent of people in American prisons are convicted for nonviolent, drug-related offenses.  And evidence, such as escalating drug abuse alongside harsh sentencing and increased incarceration levels, supports the theory that locking up small-time drug dealers does not lower crime, as another dealer comes and fills the void.

Harsh crimes deserve harsh sentences, and, if there were empirical evidence that longer sentences correlated to significant drops in crime, I would support them for all crimes, but they don’t. All evidence points towards reform. Rehabilitation costs one-fourth as much as locking somebody up, and has a much better chance of succeeding in preventing subsequent offenses.  Indeed, reforms in New York decreased the incarceration rate by 15 per cent and violent crime by 40 per cent, an achievement of a calibre mandatory minimums cannot boast.

Many tough on crime proponents also espouse the idea that people who commit crimes shouldn’t just be rehabilitated, but punished in a manner in line with the offense. Once again, I agree, but mandatory minimums don’t achieve that. It shifts power from judges, who are by definition supposed to be the unbiased observer, to the prosecutor, who is anything but impartial. The job of the prosecutor is self-defining, and they may be vindictive and self-serving, using the threat of mandatory minimum sentences – without the possibility of a judge’s leniency – as blackmail to coerce a guilty plea.  While obviously there is going to be a level of human error with any human laying down punishment on another, judges exist for the purpose of accurately surveying the situation and doling out the appropriate punishment. Why are we messing with this system?
Harper’s crime bill is so outrageous that even both judges and legislators in Texas – the harshest punishing state in the U.S with 300 in line to receive capital punishment – rejected a similar bill.  Serial killers deserve life in prison without parole. Individuals convicted of less serious crimes should be given a less serious punishment and given an opportunity for rehabilitation  Learn the difference, Canada; America didn’t. Don’t make the same mistakes, otherwise you’ll end up like America, with over 7.2 million people monitored by the criminal justice system,  spending $74 billion on corrections.

Richard Carozza is a U2 Physiology student. You can reach him at richard.carozza@mail.mcgill.ca.


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