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Tough on Crime? Tough on Non-Criminals

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The story is being written and soon reality will settle in. At that point, when the haze of this moment dissipates, and clarity and reason return to our national psyche, we will be faced with a moment of national reckoning for a nation that lost its way.

Too much ink has already been spilled on Stephen Harper's Omnibus Crime Bill, soon to become law. I preface it as Stephen Harper's because we should never forget who steered our criminal justice system, and by proxy, our societies, in this direction.

Let us never forget that as the U.S. Sentencing Commission speaks out against mandatory minimums, as the U.S. State of Texas undoes the disaster it wrought upon itself in the name of mandatory minimums, and here in Canada as the federal prison ombudsman, correctional officers, lawyers, the legal profession, and most recently judges, warn us of the futility, illegality, and cruelty of what we are about to embark upon -- that it was Stephen Harper's stubborn ignorance that led us here.

Perhaps there is a hidden epidemic of crime sweeping this country that has been unreported -- that the statistical fact that crime is at its lowest level since 1973 is incorrect. Such an epidemic might evidence the fact that our current approach to law and order, and dare I say it, rehabilitation, is not having its desired effect.

Let us also suppose for a moment that our social agencies are so flush with cash that we have spent all we can spend on programs proven to reduce recidivism among convicted felons. Let us pretend that Nunavut has at least one addiction treatment centre where in the capital, Iqaluit, 90 per cent of crimes involve some form of substance abuse.

And finally, we can pretend that we have been transported to an earlier era, when justice existed in the gallows. Back then there was no debate about a just society, about fairness. Young or old, all the same. To be strong was to be vindictive.

Stephen Harper and his cronies -- Vic Toews, the Minister of Public Safety, and Rob Nicholson, who my friend Gerald Caplan aptly calls the Injustice Minister, must believe these fallacies. It is the only logical explanation for why they have chosen to embark down the most illogical of roads.

It is easy to prey on people's fears and prejudices. This government has shown that it works. If it is a craft, they have mastered it. The tragic irony is that the boogeyman of this bill -- the first time offender who fell victim to circumstances that those who now condemn him could never begin to navigate, or the youth who at some point will re-enter the societies they have been removed from, will in fact emerge the hardened criminals they are painted as.

Too much evidence (oh, the facts!) tells us that sending non-hardened criminals to prison only gives us more hardened criminals in the long run. We will have created the crime we seek to erase.

Quebec has said it will refuse to pay the bill's cost. It will not embark down a course that will undo all the progress it has made in rehabilitating young offenders so they can rejoin society as citizens, not criminals.

Ontario recently estimated the cost of its share of this disaster at $1 billion. One billion dollars wasted on prisons, on creating criminals, and destroying communities. In an age of austerity, with the future uncertain, instead of spending precious resources where they are needed most -- in our schools, our hospitals, and our industries -- we will waste them on prisons; colossal, mega-prisons.

The strong crushing the weak.

Passing the Omnibus Crime Bill, which the House of Commons has done already and the Senate is poised to do, is only the first chapter in this story. The next chapters will tell of what happens when a smart country does something so utterly stupid. And one can only hope that when confronted with what we know is coming, we will permit ourselves what we are about to deny to too many among us, a second chance.

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