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Erika Sasson

Mandatory minimums for drug crimes are a giant step backward for Canada Add to ...

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament last December, at least one good thing happened: Bill C-15 was temporarily put to rest. That bill sought to introduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offences, in order to tackle "organized crime and serious drug offences." Now in its newest iteration as Bill S-10, the draft legislation has already survived a second reading and has a very good chance of becoming law.

Bill S-10 will neither deter organized crime nor make any serious dent in Canada's drug trade. Simply put, any major drug trafficker with provable ties to a criminal organization will not be daunted by a one- or two-year jail sentence, the proposed sanctions of the legislation. Convicted members of organized crime are generally incarcerated for much longer periods of time, so a mandatory one-year sentence will have no meaningful deterrent effect.

Rather, it's the low-level street dealers who should be alarmed. As there's no minimum amount of cocaine required to trigger the mandatory sentence, someone who sells even a 10th of a gram of cocaine for $10 and who has a previous conviction for a "designated substance offence" will be swept up by the new laws. Street dealers are middlemen who facilitate the exchange, while the buyers and suppliers actually control the level of drug use in Canada.

If the Harper government wants to incarcerate street dealers, then it should be forthright and say so. But the government is mobilizing our legitimate fear of organized crime as a Trojan horse against minor drug offenders, the most disorganized of criminals. This is an unnecessary manipulation of public sentiment that punishes the people who have the least impact on the strength of the drug trade.

The legislation is also problematic because courts need flexibility to be effective. In Toronto, for example, many street-level offenders are battling mental illness, as well as drug addiction and poverty. While the new legislation makes an exception for "successful" completion of drug treatment court, that doesn't begin to cover the gamut of people who end up in the system simply because there's nowhere else for them to go.

The courts currently use alternative sanctions to address these issues. Prosecutors and judges often work with mental health workers and defence lawyers to devise creative solutions: Conditional sentences with treatment, community service, lengthy probation and job training are just some examples of those combined efforts. These solutions can balance the needs of the community with those of the offender, thereby furthering the goal of restorative justice. The impending legislation, however, will make it impossible to pursue restorative measures.

To make matters worse, Canadians will have to pay for more space in jails. The Tories recently pledged $155.5-million to expand prisons, and that's just in Ontario and Quebec, despite the fact that Statistics Canada says the crime rate is dropping. Add to that the price of housing prisoners each year - $57,000 a prisoner in provincial jail and $88,000 a prisoner in a federal one.

Furthermore, Canadians will have to finance more trials for offenders who will have less incentive to plead guilty due to the mandatory minimum. An offender who can't get a better deal by pleading guilty will simply roll the dice and go to trial. This will create huge financial burdens on our already under-resourced court system.

The distressing financial effect cannot be overstated. In the United States, the culture of mandatory minimum sentences has crippled many state economies, causing some jurisdictions to release offenders from jail without regard for their dangerousness simply because they can't afford to house them any longer. Certainly, the mandatory sentences in the U.S. are much harsher than the ones being proposed in Canada; but the principle remains the same: Mandatory jail sentences are extremely costly because taxpayers must pay for increased jail time and many more trials.

It's absurd to adopt a trend from a country that incarcerates the highest proportion of its population in the world, and one that's starting to move away from the culture of mandatory minimums. Americans just have too many non-violent offenders in jail, and they haven't even come close to winning their war on drugs.

To tackle serious organized crime, the government can supply our police forces with more resources for surveillance and intelligence, so they have the time and manpower to build solid cases against those who bring violence into our communities. When major cases hit the courts, the offenders will be incarcerated for much longer than what's proposed in the new bill. These sentences already exist in our jurisprudence and current legislation, and don't require mandatory minimums. With serious cases against organized crime, the right people will be punished.

Instead, the Harper government writes legislation that casts a very wide net, which will over-incarcerate all sorts of minor criminals but never the Tony Sopranos. This bill should not be allowed to pass.

Erika Sasson, a former federal prosecutor in Toronto, just received her master of law degree from New York University.

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