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Harper's Crime and Punishment Agenda: Top 7 Disastrous Laws

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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.*

2. The deceptively-named Truth in Sentencing Act came into force on February 22, 2010.

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
offences:

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.

The evidence that the war on drugs is a destructive failure is abundant. But no one in the Harper government is listening.

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.

But no matter, the tough talk is still getting votes. So why let evidence and experience get in the way of ideology?

*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/

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