Mandatory minimum sentences don't deter crime, disproportionately affect vulnerable people, and increase justice and correctional system costs, a new report says.
The 84-page report, released Monday by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, takes aim at an aspect of the federal Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda.
"Mandatory minimum sentencing in Canada is at an all-time high. This is occurring even as crime rates have been steadily dropping and are at the lowest point since the early 1970s," Raji Mangat, the report's author and an association lawyer, told reporters at a downtown Vancouver news conference. "Canada is now second, only to the United States, in the total number and types of offences with mandatory minimum penalties,"
The report says mandatory minimum sentences have no demonstrated effect on deterring crime, and long prison sentences can lead to recidivism.
Mandatory minimum sentences, it says, disproportionately affect individuals from vulnerable and marginalized populations, such as First Nations, and do not give judges the freedom to properly consider unique circumstances.
Ms. Mangat said data on the price tag for mandatory minimum sentencing specifically is not available. But she said changes to conditional sentencing – one aspect of Bill C-10, The Safe Streets and Communities Act – are estimated to cost more than $150-million in trial, corrections and parole expenses. The cost of the entire bill, she said, could be into the billions, and more and more is being downloaded from Ottawa to the provinces.
Eric Gottardi, chair of the criminal section of the Canadian Bar Association, which funded the report, said the federal government would be well served to include a statutory exemption clause that would allow judges to depart from minimum sentences, in cases in which an injustice would result.
"Law and order sounds good, tough on crime catchphrases sound good. There's not a lot of political capital in being seen as soft on crime. But we need to understand that these policies really, long term, make us all less safe, not more safe," he said.
Mr. Gottardi said that in 2005, there were 29 offences in the Criminal Code that had mandatory minimum penalties. That has since doubled to about 60, he said.
Adrienne Smith, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, accused Ottawa of making decisions based on ideology, and not evidence.
"Mandatory minimum sentences are bad public policy for everyone," she said.
A case involving a mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession is expected to be heard at the Supreme Court of Canada later this year. The Conservative government's crime agenda has suffered a string of defeats before the top court.
Clarissa Lamb, press secretary for the federal Minister of Justice, said in an e-mail that the Conservative government is committed to protecting Canadians from the threat of crime. She said mandatory minimum sentences have a long history in Canada, not just with the current government.
"It is the role of Parliament to draft and enact laws that clearly articulate the values of the citizens who elected them," she wrote. "It is our job to give guidance to the judiciary on maximum penalties, as well as on minimum penalties that address the sentencing objectives of denunciation, deterrence, and incapacitation and, therefore, contribute to both public safety and improved confidence in the justice system.
"For certain offences, our government firmly believes that a minimum period of incarceration is justified. Canadians lose faith in the criminal justice system when they feel that the punishment does not fit the crime."