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Editorials A lesson for Canada as the U.S. turns against mandatory minimums

An inmate sits in a cage at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, Calif., June 3, 2011. Cages are for prisoners waiting for medical appointments, counselling, or permanent cells. The Supreme Court ordered California to release more than 30,000 inmates over the next two years or take other steps to ease overcrowding in its prisons to prevent "needless suffering and death." California's 33 adult prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates and now have about 145,000. The United States has more than 2 million people in state and local prisons. It has long had the highest incarceration rate in the world.

LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

The United States is curtailing the mandatory minimum sentences that helped make it by far the most incarcerating nation on Earth, and that have been a linchpin in the "war on drugs." Canada should pay heed to the lesson, as spelled out this week by Attorney-General Eric Holder: These sentences cost taxpayers far too much money, don't reduce recidivism, haven't won the drug war and are fundamentally unjust and destructive to communities.

The Conservative government has been in thrall to mandatory minimums, and the number of federal prisoners has been rising even as crime rates have been steadily falling. (Canada had 12,671 federal inmates in the year Stephen Harper became prime minister. As of last month, there were 15,276.) Some of the new minimums make sense in areas such as child pornography, where judges tended not to send offenders to jail and Parliament wished to reduce judges' discretion. But a mandatory minimum of six months for growing six marijuana plants is excessive and unnecessary, spurred on by a war-on-drugs mentality that is becoming more and more discredited south of the border.

To be fair, the mandatory minimums in the U.S. are far more severe than in Canada, especially when stacked together – as in the case of a man in his early 20s who received 55 years in prison for taking a gun with him on several marijuana deals and who had illegal guns at home. But the premise that jail is the primary answer to crime is the same one here as there. The Harper government even added car thieves to a list of offenders not eligible for house arrest.

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Mr. Holder was not being especially brave or controversial when he told federal prosecutors not to trigger mandatory minimums by leaving out the amount of drugs from the charges filed, unless the accused was violent or belonged to a gang. An astonishing one in four people in the world's jails are behind bars in the U.S., though the U.S. has just 5 per cent of the world's people. Many states have moved to stress rehabilitation and reduce their reliance on jail as costs have spun out of control. There is bipartisan support for more sensible sentences.

"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law-enforcement reason," Mr. Holder said. His words contain a message for Ottawa.

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