Reaction to the Harper government’s new omnibus crime legislation on both sides of the aisle has been rather predictable. The new, massive piece of legislation which contains crackdowns on young offenders, sexual criminals and cannabis growers drew immediate heat from both the Liberals and the NDP, both for its content and for being an unnecessary distraction from job creation. The bill, with its focus on the strict enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences and harsher treatment of convicted offenders also drew heat for coming at a time when the crime rate is on a steady decline.
For the Harper Conservatives there is nothing new about their latest piece of legislation. The new bill is in fact a composite of nine bills in one, almost all of them having met defeat while Harper still only had a minority government. The omnibus legislation was a key part of Stephen Harper’s platform in the last election and should be entirely unsurprising to those who follow Canadian politics. It isn’t as if this bill came out of nowhere, it has been several years and minority governments in the making. Harper tried to do it with a minority, said he would do it on the campaign trail and now with a majority government is enacting it into law. It really doesn’t get simpler than that.
For those in favour of the bill their support seems to be on the grounds that current penalties, especially those for young offenders, are far too lenient and that it seems better in many cases to simply lock them away. Keeping dangerous and violent offenders off the streets is an understandable sentiment, as are protecting ones children from sexual predators, the issue however is that this new legislation focuses on the punitive rather than the corrective. When pointed out this leads to a particularly callous and knee-jerk reaction on the part of the bill’s supporters, whose feelings on the matter seem to be “Screw â€˜em, they deserve to be punished.” This seems to be where rational discussion of the bill ends and partisan bickering begins. Regardless of your sentiments towards criminals, one has to question how effective mandatory minimum sentences really are.
I’ll start by saying that the cost of enforcing such laws is only worth it if they serve a function outside of pure punishment. Of course a supporter of the bill might say that the purpose of these laws is public protection from what are admittedly some unstable and at times violent people. The problem is that unless you’re a fan of indefinite detention this strategy relies on inmates coming out of prison better people than they were going in. Furthermore, there’s the question of how effective this legislation will be as a preventative measure.
Take the United States. Home to over one quarter of the world’s prisoners, with many states still using the death penalty, America boasts one of the largest and most comprehensive prison systems in the world. However, while the violent crime rate in America has been steadily dropping over the last decade, little evidence exists to suggest a correlation between this dwindling rate and any particular fear of punishment. As Jonathan Glover points out, in his essay Utilitarianism and Punishment, even the death penalty does not seem to provide any deterrent for violent criminals, at least none that can justify the toll it takes on all those involved in the process. Stricter sentencing isn’t going to lower crime rates (especially considering that crime rates are already on a steady decline) nor will it provide any sort of solutions outside of treating the symptoms of the problem. The question isn’t how do we keep violent criminals off the streets, the solution to that is a simple one. The question is how do we take steps towards taking the right preventative measures to treat these problems before they arise?
This being said, I understand full well the necessity of protecting children from sexual predators, and that we are more often than not a bit too accommodating when it comes to violent youth offenders. There is a need to protect Canadian families from these elements, but mandatory minimum sentences reduce violent crime the same way that higher fines reduce speeding.
A further problem posed by mandatory minimum sentences is that they create the “once a criminal, always a criminal” problem, especially when it comes to young offenders. Is there a need to prevent violent young criminals from heading back onto the streets? Certainly. However prison is in many ways the worst environment for a young offender who is sucked in early and rarely ever able to get out. If anything, prison has a way of making bad situations even worse, the non-violent become violent and the already violent become even more so.
Stricter crime laws do not provide the necessary deterrent to be preventative, nor do longer prison stays represent a real corrective measure. Instead what we run the risk of creating are more hardened and more dangerous lifelong criminals with no hope of rehabilitation or redemption. In particular, pieces of the legislation aimed at making pardons more difficult to obtain and information on offenders more accessible will make any attempts at reintegration that much more difficult.
In summary, the omnibus is a feeble and clumsy solution that stems from a poor understanding of the problem. Punishment is a way of training an animal, education is how you train human beings. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t receive fair punishment, rather that punishment is a part of the corrective process, not its goal. There remain financial, educational and social barriers which contribute to crime at its roots, and as such, taking down crime can only be done by destroying the climate which allows crime to persist. Until then I fear we’re going to lose precious time and resources in a cruel,costly and ineffective war on the symptoms while the illness remains unchecked.
Next week (Part 2): The omnibus bill and warrantless spying, the financial costs, the continued persecution of cannabis users and why the bill actually helps criminal cartels.