A tough-on-crime bill that goes too far - Macleans.ca

A tough-on-crime bill that goes too far

With Canada’s crime rate at its lowest since the 1970s, why is the government spending more money on throwing people in jail?

A tough-on-crime bill that goes too far

The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot

How tough is tough enough when it comes to crime?

A Maclean’s investigation this week by Ken MacQueen and Patricia Treble (“Too many cops?”) offers a surprising look at the unintended consequences of Canada’s recent tough-on-crime agenda.

The overall crime rate in Canada is at its lowest level since the early 1970s, and serious crime is similarly falling. This is good news, of course. And it may in large part be due to the fact that police staffing levels are at a 30-year high nationwide.

And yet MacQueen and Treble uncover plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence to suggest it may be possible to have too many cops on the street. Beside the obvious budgetary issues, local constabularies around the country are spending a disproportionate amount of their time on increasingly minor offences in an apparent effort to keep busy. Drug possession and traffic violations appear to be the only significant growth areas in the national criminal portfolio.

With this as background, the Harper government is on the verge of another major overhaul of the justice system aimed at making the criminal justice system even tougher. Such a move should give all law-abiding Canadians pause for thought.

Crime is a major standard-of-living issue, and the Conservatives’ law-and-order platform has resonated strongly with the Canadian public. As part of its successful 2011 campaign, the Harper government promised to combine 11 separate pieces of crime legislation into a massive omnibus bill to be presented this fall. With a majority now in hand, passage of the bill seems a foregone conclusion. But it’s necessary to differentiate between good public policy and political grandstanding.

As is the nature of omnibus legislation, the Tories’ crime bill is a mixed bag. It properly updates the ability of the police to intercept communications between criminals. In our information age, it makes little sense to restrict wiretapping efforts to phones that are still connected by wire. And to respond to the challenges of gang cases, the bill contains reasonable measures to streamline mega-trials. It would also allow victims of terrorism to sue the perpetrators.

But the mega-bill also prescribes controversial new rules regarding minimum jail time for a wide variety of offences. Automatic sentencing procedures may play well at political rallies or in platform books, but rigidity of this sort inevitably leads to grotesque absurdities in the courtroom. Consider the example of Tamara Cartwright, the 41-year-old mother of four featured in our story this week, who naively put four grams of home-grown marijuana in an envelope and found herself charged with the serious offence of trafficking. Under the omnibus legislation, she would face a minimum one-year jail term, rather than the six-month conditional sentence she actually received.

At its annual meeting this week, the Canadian Bar Association urged the government to include a “safety valve” in its new sentencing procedures, as is the case in most Western countries, to permit judges discretion to ignore mandatory minimum-sentencing rules in situations where this could lead to “serious injustices.” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejected the request. “It is our job to give guidance to the courts,” he said sternly in Halifax.

The obvious result of these new rules will be to create a flood of Canadians into the prison system—many first-time offenders. If there was evidence that filling prisons with minor criminals was a successful method for fighting crime, then this scenario might make some sense. But such an approach clearly hasn’t worked in the United States, despite decades of effort. In fact, many states are now emptying their jails for budgetary reasons.

It is also worth noting that as a political device, the tough-on-crime omnibus bill is starting to look a bit long in the tooth. Recall that in 2008, the then-minority government of Stephen Harper packaged five separate crime bills into its Tackling Violent Crime Act and rammed it through Parliament as a confidence issue. Now, after three years of evidence that the violent crime rate is falling precipitously—and with cops in many cities forced to spend their shifts running speed traps and busting pot-smoking mothers—the government is simply repeating itself for reasons of political expediency.

Serious crime requires a serious response—there is no debate there. But we also need to remember that the iconic statue of justice holds a scale in her hand for a reason: justice requires balance. The government’s criminal justice policy is in danger of falling out of balance.


A tough-on-crime bill that goes too far

  1. “With Canada’s crime rate at its lowest since the 1970s, why is the government spending more money on throwing people in jail?”
    Because the crime rate isn’t really down, fewer people are reporting them, because doing so is friggin’ useless. Love these liberal/progressive articles.  “Let’s have fewer cops and stay soft on crime. Let’s never be pro-active.”

    Granted, some legislation needs improvement, though, and our revolving-door system needs fixing, and our activist and incompetent judges need firing.

    • A lot of people make mistakes, Its important to crack down on habitual offenders, but for the average person who makes a once in a life time mistake, its not right to treat them like the worst of offenders. Judges are in place for a reason, to make expert decisions on what is best for the public and the offender. I dont think a piece of legislation has the intelligence or experience to do this. 

      • I agree with you Gavin. Everybody makes mistakes atleast once. It’s an unfair system.

  2. Depends on where you are I guess. In some areas, economic conditions combined with increased drug trafficking are resulting in a rise of crime(thuggery, theft and violence) in traditionally “quiet” communities.

  3. listen you troglodytes…. Canadians stayed home in droves on election day knowing full well that the advantage would go to Harper. So he is right when he says the country has given him a mandate to live out his twisted punishment-fetish. They said, with a loud voice: “We don’t really care WHO is PM….”

    So now, they will spend billions putting their own kids in jail. I applaud this, as it will weaken Canada’s social and economic fabric, allowing other countries to bully us into submission. Watching Canada eat itself alive will be pretty tasty, after having been stuck here for 42 years.

    Canadians DESERVE the misery they have just inflicted on themselves, and I for one, plan to savor their anguish. I tried to warn them and they scoffed, so now I will laugh at them as their 17 year old goes off to jail for passing a joint near a school.

    Enjoy the non-consensual sex, Canada! Lots of you will be getting a lot of it in the coming decade!

    Which raises the question: why does stephen harper like gay rape so much? Seriuously…. we need to address this issue… a LOT of man-on-man rape is going to be occurring if you crowd more people more tightly into more jails. Harper isn’t dumb, he KNOWS this… He KNOWS that men will be plooking each other, spreading diseases that are outrageously expensive to……

    Oh……. NOW i get it…… Harper is generating BUSINESS for the pharmaceutical industry, while simultaneously getting his personal punishment-jollies. Wow. What a sicko….

  4. The results are now in for the RCMP’s four year marijuana eradication program in BC’s Interior. The outcome — an explosion of violent crime, illegal weapons, and gang activity in Prince George — was covered by MacLean’s on October 14, 2010 (‘The Worst of the West’).
    Over the past four years, the numerous high profile busts of marijuana growers and traffickers in the Interior (all proudly advertised on the RCMP public alerts RSS news feeds), created a shortage of marijuana on the street. Along come the criminal gangs from the Lower Mainland with a replacement for marijuana — crack cocaine. Meanwhile, in 2009 across Canada, the number of marijuana possession convictions decreased 4 per cent, but cocaine possession convictions decreased by a whopping 29 per cent. While marijuana trafficking and production convictions increased 7 per cent, cocaine traffickng convictions decreased 13 per cent (‘The Police-reported crime for selected offences, Canada, 2009’ Statistics Canada). Is it any surprise that gang activity would increase in the Interior as a result of these law enforcement priorities?
    Far from being ‘tough on crime,’ the Conservative agenda has vastly increased business opportunities for organized crime in the form of expanded markets and distribution networks for crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. The gangs are better off, not worse off. Solution: bust even more mom-and-pop marijuana producers!

  5. The problem with this tough on crime bill is that there will be increased housing in jails. It will cost tax payers billions of dollars.  Each criminal that is on probation or on parole if they miss one visit will be put into jail and there will be an increase in crime rates as a result.  These people will not be given a chance for rehabilitation.  If they are sent to a drug court as opposed to jail time it might decrease the crime rate all together.  Harper’s stance on crime is going to far.  I think more crimes will be committed or reoffended once they get out jail.

    • Jail should be the last resort for dealing with a criminal and only for those who are a clear and present danger to society.

    • rehabilitation, is not happening, they don’t want anyone to leave, why would they when they get $160k per inmate. It is job security, and helping these people get back into society, change their lives around, and keep family ties,,, is a lie. Inmates are not encouraged to be better people, or given skills to use in the outside world, so they don’t turn back to crime and end up back in jail. How ever they are discouraged in every way possible, to be a good citizen as they so call it. Maybe we need to take a look of what really goes on in there and why. You are quite right lola36

  6. Look at the crimes that are occurring, lots of repeat offenders. Punks graduating from B7E to murder, 3 time murders getting out….many the idea is to hold them in longer. Better to pay a prison guard than a layer, judge and jury for another victim.

    And if pot smoking mothers are selling dope to kids, bust them.