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The judge made it clear that conditions in remand centres are frequently substandard and deserve consideration when it comes to imposing final sentences. (Steven Robertson @ Orem/Steven Robertson @ Orem)
The judge made it clear that conditions in remand centres are frequently substandard and deserve consideration when it comes to imposing final sentences. (Steven Robertson @ Orem/Steven Robertson @ Orem)

Globe editorial

The last laugh on Truth in Sentencing Add to ...

The centrepiece of Ottawa's tough-on-crime legislation is in tatters, shredded by - of all people - a judge.

Yet the federal government is crying victory because the Truth in Sentencing Act passed constitutional muster. Some victory. The law should probably be called the Partial and Confusing Truth in Sentencing Act. Or the Empty Truth Act.

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In practice, the law means a negligible change to the system of generous discounts given to convicted people for every day served in jail before sentencing. Instead of two days for one, most will receive a discount of 1½ days for every day served, if this week's ruling by Ontario Court Judge Melvyn Green is an indication. The new rules have nearly as much wiggle room as the old.

How comically appropriate that a law intended by the Conservative government to defeat judicial largesse was denuded of its toughness by a judge. Not a group of appeal court judges, not a superior court judge, but a judge from the trenches of provincial court.

The legislation that Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page predicted could mean an extra $5-billion a year in prison costs, by 2015-16, turns out unlikely to cost much at all. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, hallelujah.

And all this, arising from a criminal case that illustrates what a waste of time and money prison can be. The guilty party is one of those sad-sack, marginalized figures that fill the provincial jails. Abandoned by his alcoholic father at age 4, Marvin Johnson is a 40-year-old, homeless crack addict who has 15 convictions since 1998, nine of them for trafficking drugs, usually cocaine, in small amounts to support his habit. He was caught selling $20 worth of cocaine to an undercover officer. He has never been in a drug treatment program.

Should Canada be spending so much time and energy debating how long to keep Marvin Johnson in jail? Wouldn't it be more productive to figure out how to improve services for children who grow up in Marvin Johnson's straitened circumstances? Wouldn't it be better to work on treatment or supportive housing options for Marvin Johnson?

Judge Green found a way around what seemed a strict rule. Repeat offenders, and those who have violated bail conditions, are to be credited with just one day for every day served. But the law also allows for 1.5 days' credit "if the circumstances justify it." In provincial jails, prisoners are automatically released on remission after two-thirds of their sentence. The Crown and defence agreed Mr. Johnson deserved 18 months in jail. That would mean 12 months after remission. Mr. Johnson had spent 12 months in pretrial custody. Therefore, since the judge wasn't allowed to give him 1.5 days' credit, he ruled that the circumstances justified a 12-month sentence.

All taxpayers have a right to be every bit as relieved as Mr. Johnson. For the government, however, it's an embarrassment.

 

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