Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, true to its populist right-wing roots, has always played the "tough on crime" card. But it's outdoing itself with a forthcoming bill that aims to send the "most dangerous violent offenders" to jail for life without possibility of parole.
Mr. Harper is not bringing back capital punishment. He's doing worse. Condemning human beings to die in their cells like forgotten animals without the slightest trace of hope is a punishment more cruel than injecting them with lethal poison. This bill inspired by the primitive lex talionis philosophy will be a brutal break with Canadian judicial tradition, which is based on rehabilitation when possible. It's also an intellectual fraud, since it blatantly ignores several basic facts:
Fact No. 1: Canadian crime rates have been declining for years.
Fact No. 2: Harsh sentences are not a deterrent. Countless studies have shown that most criminals are sure they won't be caught.
Fact No. 3: The "worst" criminals already do spend the rest of their lives in jail. Serial killer Clifford Olson was refused parole three times and died in prison. The likes of Paul Bernardo and Robert Pickton can apply as many times as they want, but they'll never be granted it.
Fact No. 4: The overwhelming majority of convicts who are granted conditional liberation don't reoffend. Yes, there have been tragic mistakes, and horrible crimes have been committed by repeat offenders. But according to the latest available Correctional Service Canada data available, out of 658 convicted murderers released on full parole between 1975 and 1990, just five committed another murder.
The question of repeat offenders is a serious problem. But the solution is not to demolish the system – we don't close hospitals because some doctors make wrong diagnoses – but to improve the system by appointing more qualified experts to parole boards.
The government's "life means life" bill will carry a provision that represents the height of cynicism – or maybe it's a sneer at the Supreme Court, which will probably find the future law unconstitutional on the grounds that it involves "cruel and unusual punishment." After 35 years, and in "exceptional circumstances," a convict could apply for release to the public safety minister. So the judge would be a politician swayed by public opinion, rather than a panel of objective and trained professionals. This would make a mockery of our justice system.
The categories of crimes targeted by the upcoming bill will be quite large, from "heinous" murders to kidnapping, sexual assault, terrorism and the killing of a police or correctional officer. Are all these crimes committed by irrecuperable monsters? Isn't it conceivable that a young man who killed a police officer or planted a bomb in a terrorist attack when he was 20 years old could change over the years and amend himself, with the necessary support? Aren't human beings capable of evolution after having paid their dues to society?
Far from increasing the protection of the public, this new plan would make our prisons even more explosive, filled as they would be by convicts deprived of hope, with nothing to lose. There would be more suicides, more violent escapes and more murderous riots.
Another result the bill will probably have, it's worth noting, is to help the Conservatives' re-election cause in the next election, in a country where, according to a 2013 Angus Reid poll, 63 per cent of the population is in favour of capital punishment.