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The Conservatives' Crime Bill: Mean, But Not Lean

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PRISON JUSTICE
AP

With a majority government, the Harper Conservatives have indicated that they now have electoral support for their agenda of dramatically increasing Canada's prison population. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson recently told the media that his government has " a strong mandate to move forward."

Close attention to relevant data -- or even basic arithmetic -- does not appear to be a hallmark of the current government. Slightly less than 40 per cent of Canadian voters cast their ballots for the Conservatives earlier this year, and only 61 per cent of eligible voters actually made it to the polls. The reality, then, is that the Conservatives -- and many of their policies -- would appear to have the support of less than 25 per cent of adult Canadians.

But let's put aside their misplaced attribution to popular support. What of the crime bill itself? There are a few positives here, but let's look at just two elements that will cost us billions of dollars over the next five years, mostly in the form of new prison construction and the associated costs of incarceration. First, the proposal to end conditional sentencing, commonly known as house arrest, for a wide range of crimes: theft over $5,000 and breaking and entering are two of the more prominent of these offences.

Conditional sentences have, to date, significantly reduced rates of incarceration and saved tax dollars, without any corresponding reductions in social safety. In fact, study after study has revealed that incarceration imposes significant harms on most offenders, typically increasing risks of further involvement in crime. The Harper government simply believes that the evidence on these points is irrelevant -- that the morally appropriate response is to impose a greater (and more expensive) measure of pain on those who commit these crimes.

Even more costly and more bizarre, given the support of a majority of Canadians for the decriminalization of cannabis, is their plan to imprison anyone who grows six marijuana plants or more -- for a minimum term of six months, irrespective of whether they have employed any violence in their operations (an RCMP study of marijuana cultivators reveals that less than 10 per cent of those apprehended are engaged in any kind of violent activity).

Why such apparently mean-spirited approaches, particularly when crime is declining, and there is no credible evidence that these initiatives will reduce crime? The price tag -- at least $2 billion over the next five years -- forces us to realize that this is not a fiscally conservative approach to the problem. We all want more social safety, but these initiatives won't get us there. Instead, the Conservatives are prepared to spend billions on policies that have long been discredited, and have no hope of any tangible return on investment.

The best answer is that this debate has very little, if anything, to do with evidence. The Harper Conservatives believe in punishing crime, even if the costs of their effort reduce Canadians' accessibility to health care and education. Their policies on crime are simply a window into their emotional and ideological worldview.

With a majority in place, the Conservative government now has the opportunity to tell us what they really think -- or more to the point, to impose themselves on the rest of us. As Bob Rae has said, the sad reality is that it will be left to future governments to clean up the mess that they are creating.

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