Every week, it seems, the Harper government introduces a new bill or initiative purportedly aimed at making our "streets and communities safe." Rather than make us safer, however, these crime and punishment laws are leading us toward disaster.
A complete list of all the changes would fill up a hefty book. Instead, here is a quick overview of a few of the laws that have been enacted by the Conservatives:
1. The Tackling Violent Crimes Act:
With a name that sounds like a Marvel comic title, this Act became law in 2008. The government touted the law as a one-answer-fits-all crime reduction tactic: "Jail everybody; jail them longer!"
A portion of this misguided legislation was quickly struck down by an Ontario trial court. That decision is currently under appeal, so the state of the law remains uncertain.
What is certain is this: incarceration and higher jail sentences not only do not reduce crime and recidivism, but in some cases they actually increase the likelihood of recidivism.*
This law essentially prohibits sentencing judges from granting an offender more than 1:1 credit for any time that the person spent in jail prior to their trial. The Conservatives' contended that when courts granted someone 2 for 1 credit for pretrial custody, they were misleading the public as to the actual sentence to be served by the offender. The Harper government had to step in to make judges and the justice system more "honest."
In passing this legislation, however, the Conservatives not only removed judicial discretion in sentencing, but they also hid from the public the truth about our horrid jail conditions, and the factors that judges consider when they determine the appropriate sentence for someone.
Then things got worse.
Soon after they gained their majority in the legislature, the Conservatives rolled all their various crime bills into one giant Omnibus bill, entitled, the "Safe Streets and Communities Act," or Bill C-10.
The next 5 items are a few of the poisonous branches of the Omnibus tree.
3. Increased and mandatory minimum sentences for a host of drug
The most criticized portion of this bill is that which subjects a person who grows 5 or more cannabis plants to a minimum jail sentence of 6 months or 5 years, depending on a number of legal factors.
4. An end to conditional sentences (generally known as house arrest) for a range of offences:
Until recently, conditional sentences had the support of both Liberals and Conservatives. They were seen as a cheaper, more effective method of rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, as a means of ensuring that otherwise safe people could remain employed, remain with their families, and obtain the support that they needed, while being held accountable for their offences.
But Bill C-10 eliminated this sensible option for many offences, throwing more people behind our ineffective and destructive bars.
5. No Christian forgiveness from a party with strong ties to religion:
Before March of 2012, a person who had been convicted of a crime, but had spent a designated number of years afterward as a law-abiding citizen, could apply for a "pardon." If granted, his record would be cleared, his job prospects improved, his contribution to society increased.
Now, however, an eligible person can apply, not for a pardon, but for a "record suspension." This is more than a mere matter of semantics. The label tells it all: in the eyes of the Conservative government, once a criminal, always a criminal.
6. Penalizing more conduct while in jail:
The Bill has expanded the range of conduct that could get an inmate into trouble while in jail. One new offence: being "disrespectful toward a person in a manner that is likely to provoke them to be violent." You know, like swearing at someone. Disciplinary offences can lead to a range of consequences, including segregation. The law does nothing to address the fact that jail conditions, themselves, contribute to aggression and violence.
7. Punish our children just as you would our adults:
Previously, the primary principles underlying the Youth Criminal Justic Act were to prevent crime by addressing the circumstances underlying a young person's offences, to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, and to subject the young persons to "meaningful consequences," all with a view to promote the long-term protection of the public.
The new Act, however, makes "protection of the public" and "accountability" the primary focus of the Act.
Furthermore, the new law requires youth court judges sentencing a young person to focus on denunciation and deterrence, as opposed to rehabilitation and crime prevention.
This combination of priorities is designed to lead to greater pre-trial detention, harsher sentences, and more imprisonment.
With Bill C-10 passed and its various portions now being law, the Harper government moved on to other crime legislation.
7. Bill C-54: the bill that sticks it to the mentally ill:
This bill is a recent addition to the sleight of punitive bills. A person who suffered from a major mental disorder at the time of the commission of a crime may be found to be "not criminally responsible." Such a person is institutionalized indefinitely, until such time as a panel of experts (a Review Board) determines that she no longer poses a significant risk to society and has sufficient control over her illness.
The bill, however, shifts away from the goals of rehabilitation and reintegration toward longer institutionalization. Review Boards are now to make public safety the "paramount concern." Furthermore, they are no longer to impose the least onerous and restrictive conditions after a disposition hearing, but are to enforce what is "necessary" and "appropriate."
The result will not only be greater overcrowding of our mental health institutions, which already lack sufficient resources and function at full capacity, but also greater imprisonment of persons with mental health disorders in our regular prisons, since there will not be sufficient room for them at our mental health institutions.
A bigger prison population. Longer terms of incarceration. Little to no investment in the kinds of social services and education that can help to reduce crime. No support for alternatives to the criminal justice system, such as restorative justice. Others have traveled this road. And they warn us about the disaster toward which we are quickly heading.
*See "Do Sentences of Imprisonment Reduce Reoffending Rates for Either Men or Women?" Criminological Highlights, Volume 13, Number 2 (February 2013) Centre for Criminology and Social Studies, University of Toronto.
For a more in-depth analysis of these bills, go to: http://justicerequiresempathy.com/
Canadians already want it, and all signs point to Generation Y being the cohort to make legal pot happen. The Liberals are already (tentatively) backing such a plan, after the youth wing of the party brought the matter to a vote last year. And now that several U.S. states have either decriminalized or legalized possession, the spectre of U.S. retaliation over legalization is growing less daunting by the day. Young people have long been vocal about ending pot prohibition, but millennials may be the first generation in 100 years to face conditions favourable to ending it once and for all.
Past generations have faced environmental challenges of their own (anyone remember acid rain?), but the problems facing Generation Y are greater in scale. First among them is climate change. As long as oil, natural gas and coal remain the least expensive energy options, Canada and the world will continue to dig them up and burn them. While the Conservative government has relentlessly hammered the NDP for its alleged plan to institute "a job-killing carbon tax," a cap-and-trade scheme was actually part of the Tory platform in 2008. Creating a price disincentive to burn carbon is probably the only way we're going to start down the road to finding affordable replacements for fossil fuels. It seems that even the Tories knew that once upon a time. As Generation Y begins to have children and extreme weather events increase, the sense of urgency about climate change will only grow. Look for millennials to make something happen on the climate front at last.
From the Prime Minister's Office’s iron grip on government MPs to the questionably democratic results of first-past-the-post elections, the rules of Canada's political system are ripe for change. Justin Trudeau, who has been aggressively courting the vote of millennials during his campaign for the Liberal leadership, proposed changes on both fronts just last week. Angry as some young people may be about perceived abuses of power by recent prime ministers (prorogations and squelching backbench dissent come to mind), once Gen Y takes the reins of power, they too may find it difficult to let the horses run free. Power, as the saying goes, has a tendency to corrupt. But on the question of first-past-the-post, there is growing consensus among young people that something has to give. Take the results of the 2008 federal election, in which the Green party won nearly 7 per cent of the vote and no seats. The Bloc Québécois won roughly 10 per cent of the vote and ended up with 47 seats. Canadian elections are rife with such examples. Stephen Harper and the Tories have now won three consecutive elections without cracking 40 per cent in the popular vote. Proportional representation would seem like a logical alternative, but given Canada's many diverse regions, it might lead to resentment in smaller provinces (not to mention constitutional impediments). A ranked voting system, similar to the one proposed by Trudeau and others, presents a happy medium that would result in a Parliament that more accurately represents the will of all Canadians while still respecting the choices of the country's many regions.
When millennials were young, their parents often entertained them with horror stories about the processed foods they were fed as children. Cans of soup often figured prominently. Today, Gen Y tells their children similar horror stories. Only the spectrum has shifted. Brought up in a fast-food culture, millennials have witnessed the obesity epidemic first hand and have grown suspicious about where our calories really come from. From the horrific conditions in which our meat is raised, to the stunning content of sugar in our foods, to the prospect of a world where food is designed at the genetic level, Gen Y wants change. But that doesn't mean young people today don't understand the challenge of feeding a growing world. Genetically modified foods may very well be a silver-bullet for ending the world's hunger problems, but strict regulation and inspection must be enacted to keep our food system from spiralling into a nightmarish future. Gen Y, like their parents before them, is up to the task.
While millennials did not create the Internet, they have revolutionized it. And Gen Y isn't interested in the counter-revolution. Just ask Vic Toews. When the Conservative government tried to pass online surveillance legislation, Canada's young people were among the loudest voices to speak up in opposition. That battle was won. In the United States, the story was much the same. But the war is far from over. Governments around the world are cracking down on the freedom and openness that made the Internet great. But Gen Y isn't about to let the state kill the web. Look for millennials to put digital freedom on the same pedestal as freedom of speech, assembly and religion.
As the massive Baby Boom generation retires, it will be left to their children (and let's not forget Gen X) to pay for their latter years. Health care, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security are all expected to come under strain. While Gen Y will need to tweak these systems to ensure the Boomers don't leave them bankrupt, they will also need to look to the future. Canadian couples are having fewer children than in the past, on average 1.7 kids per family, and that number seems unlikely to head in the other direction any time soon. In other words, we’re not replacing our dead fast enough to sustain population growth. Immigration must make up the difference, but reforming the health care system will also need to be on the table for the sake of the nation’s finances. Canadians are rightfully proud of our universal health care, but that fierce pride has often led to an unwillingness to adapt to changing times. Gen Y, tested by the experience of paying for their parents' latter years, will hopefully be up to the challenge of adapting our system. We must find a way to pay for services and safeguards we have come to take for granted, but which are becoming less affordable in a negative birth rate world. While the universal spirit of the system should remain untouched, all options should be on the table for lowering costs and improving care.
Post-secondary tuition was pushed to the forefront of the public consciousness in 2012 as Quebec students took to the streets en masse to protest a proposed tuition hike. Those students won their battle, but the reality is that young people in the rest of Canada already face much higher fees for post-secondary education. Meanwhile, the cost of tuition is rising faster than incomes and inflation, according to a recent report from the Centre for Policy Alternatives. Education is the great equalizer in a democratic society, allowing those who were born further down the ladder to climb a few rungs. As tuition fees rise, social mobility can fall. Just look at the United States, where sky-high college costs are saddling a generation with decades of debt and contributing to income inequality. One province, P.E.I, recently took action on the issue by eliminating interest on all student loans. Gen Y, educated by their own experiences with student loans, may expand such a program. But when millennials obtain power, they must also be cognizant of costs and quality. Freezing tuition can lead to two unfavourable outcomes: 1. A decrease in the quality of education and 2. Government debt. We're looking at you, Quebec. Gen Y will need to get creative, which, luckily, they're pretty good at.
Follow Dyanoosh Youssefi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DyanooshY