November 21, 2011

Feds eye harsher sentences despite falling crime rates

Harper’s omnibus bill faces widespread opposition

Tannara Yelland
CUP Prairies & Northern Bureau Chief

The Conservative crime bill will likely do little to help lower crime rates, some suggest.

SASKATOON (CUP) — With both serious and petty crime dropping steadily in Canada over the last decade, according to Statistics Canada, many are challenging the federal government’s intense focus on imprisoning law-breakers.

Bill C-10, entitled the “Safe Streets and Communities Act,” is an omnibus bill composed of nine different bills that died in Parliament before the May 2 election was called. It includes harsher mandatory minimum sentences for offences such as drug possession, as well as extended possible maximum sentences.

“The bill will do little to help crime rates and will be a costly measure that the provinces will have to pay for,” Pardon Society of Canada Chairperson Ainsley Muller wrote in an email. “In reality … prisons are already overcrowded. The bill presents a huge burden for already cash-strapped provinces.”

The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the bill will cost provinces and territories between $6 and $10 billion over the next five years, which will amount to about three quarters of the cost of the bill, according to the John Howard Society of Manitoba.

Despite this, some provincial governments, including Saskatchewan’s and Manitoba’s, are still backing the bill, citing its approach to keeping criminals off the street as reason enough to put up the extra funding.

“It has been acknowledged that some provisions of Bill C-10 will result in additional expenditures in corrections,” Manitoba government spokesperson Rachel Morgan wrote in an email. “This concern alone is not sufficient to oppose federal criminal law amendments.”

But at a time when governments are prescribing belt-tightening and balanced budgets in order to prepare for a potential second global recession, spending more on crime that is already decreasing strikes many as the wrong approach.

“The premise that the bill is trying to address is faulty in a time when crime is going down in all categories,” said University of Regina criminal justice professor Hirsch Greenberg. “Arresting people after the crime is committed doesn’t make people safer. You need to prevent the crime from being committed in the first place.”

The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think tank, echoed Greenberg in a recent report. “One of the most serious criticisms of the ‘tough on crime’ agenda, with its emphasis on punishment, is that it will actually result in more of a threat to public safety rather than less.” the CCPA wrote.

Muller explained that the bill will be harmful to the pardon process as well, which will impact released inmates who may be attempting to restart their lives.

“Those with minor offences, mistakes made years ago that they have tried to put behind them, will now find it more difficult to obtain a pardon,” he wrote.

“Having a criminal record inhibits their ability to find employment, go to school, volunteer and more.”

According to Muller, more than one in seven Canadian adults currently have a criminal record. Most of these are for minor offences of the kind Muller explained will be affected by the bill.

Both Muller and Greenberg cited the United States, which has long been a proponent of the tough on crime approach Bill C-10 embraces, as a cautionary tale.

Muller addressed the high costs of the model, saying the cost of holding a male offender in a federal prison for one year is higher than the cost of sending someone to Princeton, an Ivy League American university, for one year. For female inmates, the cost is closer to three years of tuition.

Greenberg, meanwhile, focused on the fact that several legislators and lawmakers even in Texas have spoken out against the Canadian Conservatives’ crime bill, though they have one of the harshest criminal codes in America.

Until 2004, Texas had the highest incarceration rate in the world: one in 20 adults was either in jail, on probation or on parole.

“You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up,” Dallas County Court Judge John Creuzot told the CBC in October. “And there will come a point in time where the public says, ‘Enough!’”

There are some who disagree with Greenberg and Muller, though. Michael Gendron, spokesperson for the Canadian Police Association, noted that his organization wholeheartedly supports the bill.

“We are entirely happy to see this,” Gendron said.

(Photo courtesy inmate32322/Flickr Creative Commons)

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