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Go to Prison, Get a Great Job

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According to Robert Sampson, mandatory minimum sentencing is a great tool for getting people the education and training they need to successfully reintegrate and contribute to society. At least that was the focus of his argument in a debate with Eric Sterling on CBC's "The Current" Thursday.

Sampson served as Corrections Minister in Ontario under Mike Harris, and reviewed Canada's Correctional Services in 2007. Many of his recommendations were included in Bill C-10, known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences.

As legal counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in the 1980's, Eric Sterling drafted American legislation on mandatory minimum sentencing. He now believes that legislation was a "tragedy" for the American judicial system.

I'm stuck on Go to Prison, Get a Great Job. It's no worse than Join the Navy, See the World. It's the cheap alternative to college and university -- room and board included. These are unemployable people, Sampson says, many with no more than a grade eight education, and no skills whatsoever. If we let them out after a few short months they won't get the help they need. Locked in, they can't drop out seems to be his logic.

Why examine and address the causes of alienation, and failures of our education system? Why enable young people to finish high school with the social supports they need to make good choices, when we can let our corrections system do the job for a lot more money?

My friend suggests that with steeply rising tuition rates, encouraging our kids to become felons may ensure they get the skills they need to compete in the 21st Century.

With Canadian rates of recidivism at approximately 50%, and mandatory minimum legislation guaranteed to pack our prisons with even more low-level criminals, these great training programs had better work.

Sampson is confident they will. I think he's deluded. An ex-prisoner commented that he'd never been violent until he entered the prison system where aggression, stress, and watching your back rule the day. Not the best learning environment.

In the world of politics, strong arguments are built on either side. The fact that our neighbours to the south whom our current government is often keen to emulate, have tried and failed, might, at the very least, give us cause to reflect before moving forward. Then again, we had plenty of evidence about other things like the economic failure of mega cities, but we chose not to heed that either. The beauty of being in power is you get to pick and chose your evidence.

Our government has their classic conservative arguments for C-10 -- getting tough on crime, keeping the streets safe, and using stronger sentencing as a deterrent. But Sampson's argument about prisons as community colleges for the criminally inclined is, well, laughable. B.A., M.B.A., E.C.E., trades, medicine. What will be on offer? It makes embracing a life of crime as a first career, then heading off to prison to prepare for a second one look kind of sweet.

Countering his own argument Sampson went on to say that Bill C-10 is not as harsh and absolute as people seem to think, that one can in fact be paroled for good behaviour before completing a minimum sentence.

So now I'm confused. What does minimum sentence even mean? And if they get paroled early won't they miss out on all that critical classroom time our prisons are set to deliver so effectively?

I'd be grateful for the giggles, were it not for the disproportionate negative impact of this legislation on poor, and marginalized communities, and the utter unlikelihood that Kingston Penitentiary College or Millhaven U. will overhaul the criminal world, transforming grade eight drop outs into the workforce of tomorrow.

Maybe Conservatives should stick with what they know best -- law and order, and not try to wade into the social, do-gooder realm. It really doesn't suit them, and they just end up looking silly.

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