Harper’s inhumane mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime: rights group

by: Obert Madondo  | Published Tue. Sept 9, 2014

Stop Bill C-10 Poster on Parliament Hill. 2011. (Photo: OBERT MADONDO/The Canadian Progressive)

Stop Bill C-10 Poster on Parliament Hill. 2011. (Photo: OBERT MADONDO/The Canadian Progressive)

A new report by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) paints a grim picture of the Harper Conservatives’ tough-on-crime agenda and draconian mandatory minimum sentencing policies.

The report, More Than We Can Afford: The Costs of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, says the policies aren’t making Canada’s streets safer. They are failing to reduce crime while coming at a staggering personal, social and financial cost.

“Mandatory minimums are a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing,” said Raji Mangat, BCCLA Counsel and report author. “They do not deter crime. They shift discretion in sentencing away from judges, whose decisions are openly made and reviewable, to prosecutors, whose decisions are tactical and largely beyond review.”

Since coming to power in 2006, the Conservatives have doubled the number of offences carrying minimum sentences. According to the Canadian Bar Association, the number of such offences, most of them relating to gun crimes, sex offences and drugs, now stands at 57, up from 29 before the Conservatives came to power in 2006. The Crime Bill C-10 or The Safe Streets and Communities Act, enacted in 2012, made sweeping changes to Canada’s youth justice system. 

In a press release, the BCCLA noteed that since Bill C-10 came into effect, “the number of offences attracting mandatory minimum sentences is at an all-time high.” The organization added: “While there has been no comprehensive costing analysis of Bill C-10 as a whole, the cost to the justice and corrections systems of just one element of  Bill C-10 has been estimated at over $150 million.”

RELATED: Statistics Canada: Crime rate reached its lowest level in 40 years in 2011

Citing evidence from traditional tough-on-crime jurisdictions such as Texas, critics of sentencing have repeatedly argued that longer prison sentences are not a deterrent on crime. Instead, they make inmates more likely to re-offend upon release. Experts have argued that harsh sentences have a Jim Crow-style impact on aboriginals, blacks and the mentally ill.

Aboriginals constitute 4 per cent of the Canadian population, but up to 22 per cent of the country’s prison population. As of 2012, Canada had experienced a 50 per cent increase of black inmates over a period of 10 years. After serving their sentences, these “felons of color” face discrimination in access to education, employment and public benefits.

“The BCCLA is extremely concerned about the unjust, disproportionate outcomes of mandatory minimum sentencing,” said Mangat. “It is a short-sighted approach to the criminal justice system where there is instead a pressing need for evidence-based, thoughtful policy reform.”

The BCCLA said the social costs of harsh sentencing transcend communities of colour to include all vulnerable and marginalized communities. The organization said an estimated 20,000 children from vulnerable and marginalized people “are separated from their mothers because of incarceration every year in Canada, resulting in negative behavioural manifestations, including withdrawal, low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse and aggression.”

In July, the BCCLA released another groundbreaking report. The report entitled, “Set Up to Fail: Bail and the Revolving Door of Pre-trial Detention,” revealed that a majority of the 25,000 people currently held in Canada’s provincial and territorial jails are “legally innocent.”

“Mandatory minimum sentences are bad public policy for everyone,” said Adrienne Smith, lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, which jointly released the report. “They’re cruel and unusual punishment, especially as they apply to members of Canada’s marginalized communities. We need to allow judges to consider the conditions of the offence and the offenders to ensure sentences are fair.”

The BCCLA says the long-term public safety of Canadians lies in evidence-based reform of the criminal justice system, rehabilitation and re-integration of offenders.

A copy of the BCCLA’s report is available for download here.

Read By The Numbers: Facts about the Costs of Tough on Crime Measures

Read the report summary here

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow him on Twitter.com/Obiemad