The Prison is the Answer to Everything omnibus crime bill introduced by the Conservative government this week has some worthwhile measures – sometimes prison is the answer – but it also tends to go too far. It gets onto a good thing, such as ending the overuse of house arrest in violent crime, and then can't restrain itself from including non-violent offences such as car theft. Or it decides tougher sentences are in order for drug traffickers and organized crime, and then slaps a six-month jail term on anyone who grows six marijuana plants. (The bill is formally known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, and includes nine bills introduced by the Conservatives during minority rule and never passed.)
The bill's subtitle might be “Taking the Country Back.” From whom? The judges and the Liberals. There is a shower of new mandatory minimum sentences – judges can't be trusted to get it right, in the government's view. The Liberal attempts to bring down Canada's fairly high incarceration rate are off the table; more adults and youths will wind up behind bars. There are bills to deny pardons for sexual predators – a reasonable move, in the wake of the pardon-on-a-platter given to Graham James, a convicted abuser of young hockey players. There is a bill to make it more difficult to transfer Canadian citizens convicted of crimes in other countries back to this country to serve their time. (Won't they be deported here afterward, anyway?) While each of these should be assessed by the public, and parliamentarians, on its merits, it is necessary also to ask: Is this what fighting crime and protecting communities are really all about? Jail cells?
There are the good, the bad and the base. The Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act is for the party's conservative political base. It provides “mandatory jail time for serious drug offences.” But why should growing six marijuana plants in one's basement bring six months in jail? If judges can't be trusted to give the appropriate sentence for a 19-year-old with a few pot plants in his closet, maybe that's because Canadians generally don't see it as a serious crime. And should selling marijuana to someone under 18 bring a minimum of two years? This is a page from the discredited war-on-drugs handbook.
Sébastien's Law, on the other hand, is tough-sounding but not draconian. Jean Chrétien's Liberal government had inserted a “presumption” into the youth-crime law that the most serious offences (such as murder), if committed from 14 to 17, deserved an adult sentence. The Supreme Court threw out that presumption. This new law requires the Crown to “consider” asking for an adult sentence for the most serious offences. Judges will also be able to hold, until trial, young people deemed out of control and dangerous. A liberal, retired judge in Nova Scotia proposed this measure after a 16-year-old out on bail killed a woman while driving a stolen car at 180 kilometres an hour. Society in general – and young people, too – will be better off as a result.
Finally, consider the new law that limits the use of house arrest brought in by the Liberals. For more than a decade, there had been a legal fiction that house arrest was a punitive sentence. But few people believed it. No wonder, when some of those on house arrest could go out to work, study or pray. And people who committed violent offences, including stabbings, child rapes and sexual mutilations, were given these sentences. But the Conservatives won't allow house arrest even for some non-violent crimes such as car theft or break-and-enter, committed largely by young people who may benefit from a second chance.
“This is just the beginning,” says Justice Minister Robert Nicholson. That is worrying. The government is obsessed with the tough-on-crime-and-drugs approach of the United States, even as U.S. conservatives move in the other direction – the Canadian one – because jail costs are outstripping investments in higher education. (California, step forward.) Even where a tougher approach is called for, it is not enough. The government should also be spending some of its political capital, energy and money to address the causes of crime, including poor mental health, addictions and child poverty.