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Crime bill extinguishes hope for thousands of Canadians

A Toronto inmate bides his time on February of 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

With the government's omnibus crime bill set to become law, a critical question we should ask is whether we are becoming a society that fosters hope or one that extinguishes it. While Canada is a country of promise in many ways, the government's course of enacting legislation that favours incarceration and punishment over treatment and rehabilitation stands in conflict to the values that make it such a formidable nation.

Coverage of the debate surrounding this bill has erroneously pitted conservatives against seemingly everyone else. But the divisions are not that simple. Although the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper espouses many of the values that conservatives uphold, there remain policies that cause significant moral and philosophical cleavages within the party. I am a Tory, but like many others who cast their ballot the same way I did not vote for the draconian and misguided measures in this regressive legislation.

It is undeniable that parts of the bill make a great deal of sense, such as stiffer sentences for violent offenders and mandatory minimums for child sex offenders. Yet it is the provisions piled in with these laudable initiatives that make it so unpalatable and that can only be described as contrary to the most critical purpose of our justice system – the rehabilitation and reintegration of criminals into society and crime prevention.

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In principle, once an offender has served their time, they are presumed to be rehabilitated. However, as anyone who has experience with the correctional systems knows, this is a near universally farcical concept as our prisons have an almost flawless record of failure in this area. Rather than seeking to improve upon treatment and rehabilitation, which are more effective and less expensive recourses, the government is choosing instead to suffocate the hope of thousands by imposing harsher sentences for relatively benign crimes and making it increasingly difficult to obtain a pardon for one's past wrongs.

Yes, criminals have erred, and in many cases have erred greatly, and for this they should be held accountable and punished. But one of the true measures of society is how it treats those who have made mistakes and paid for their errors with years of their lives. While people are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence, this human failure should not be met with equal cruelty and oppression at the hands of the state, but rather with magnanimity and a desire for reconciliation, treatment and inclusion.

Moreover, since those who have served time are more likely to re-offend when released, the bill's provisions to increase incarceration for what are presently minor offences will only serve to create more of the recidivist offenders the bill is attempting to combat.

On this note, a section which bears particular mention is the amendment to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The aim of this amendment is to vigorously attack the criminals that control the drug trade by imposing longer sentences on traffickers and consumers, and imprisoning those who are convicted of benign drug offences.

The century of drug prohibition by overbearing governments has been marked by violence, corruption, poverty and the destruction of the lives of millions who are forced to act and be treated as criminals simply because they privately enjoy the barbiturate and stimulating effects of certain substances. Profits associated with this trade have also surged as prohibition has entrenched the criminals involved in trafficking through a system of indirect state-sponsorship by allowing them to be the sole financial beneficiaries of the trade.

Although the question of drug legalization is intensely complicated, the tide in most developed nations is toward more liberal drug policies, if not outright legalization. It has been a decade since Portugal decriminalized all drug possession and the experience has, by almost all social and legal barometers, been a resounding success. Drug consumption, crime rates and violence have dropped significantly since people have been free to consume drugs without the specter of jail looming over them.

A principal goal of government – particularly a conservative one – should be to further the freedoms and liberties of its people without the paternalistic pretenses of the state prescribing their actions. By engendering government control and restriction of human behaviour, Mr. Harper's Tories are straying farther from championing the individual freedoms that are vital to the progress of society.

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Indeed, in many instances, tough-on-crime approaches work. But, taken as a whole, I prefer a system that is smart on crime, that seeks to address the root cause of criminal behaviour, and that deals with these problems through prevention and treatment rather than through the internment and repression of those who have made mistakes.

The government argues that Canadians elected their party based on their platform, thus giving them the right, if not the duty, to implement their policies. Superficially this is correct, as it has been for every government that has come before them. However, governments must cautiously calculate their actions and enact sensible policies that bridge the gap between what the government believes it was elected to achieve and what is best for the country.

While Mr. Harper has my support, I do not support harmful and irresponsible policies such as these, which exacerbate divisions within the party and among Canadians.

Sandy White, a former aide to Christian Paradis as Minister of Public Works, is studying law Laval University in Quebec City

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