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The B.C. Liberals Embrace the Crime Bill: The Principle Is Political Expediency

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"I support keeping our streets safe", Premier Christy Clark told the legislature last week, in support of the Harper Conservatives' crime bill. "Where do they stand on a bill that intends to make Canadian streets safer?" she asked of the NDP opposition. Her comments, as one reporter noted, spoke "to a certain constituency her B.C. Liberal party is obsessively courting". Ms. Clark was "trying to coax back to her tent the 18 per cent of voters who, the pollsters say, support the fledgling B.C. Conservative party." One can imagine the Randy Newman song "Rednecks" playing softly in the background.

The premier is an intelligent woman; she must know that the very expensive elements of the crime bill have nothing to do with making our streets safer. The Youth Criminal Justice Act already mandates significant sentences and almost routine transfer to adult court for youth offenders who commit serious crimes of violence. The wholesale elimination of conditional sentences for a range of property offences removes judicial discretion from cases where house arrest would be an appropriate judicial response. Perhaps most important, the crime rate has been declining and there is no credible evidence that putting all sorts of people in jail for longer periods of time will make our society more safe.

Take the mandatory minimum term of six months imprisonment for any person who grows more than six marijuana plants. According to a recent study most marijuana growers are not violent, and from a public health perspective, the harm that they impose upon their consumers is rather insignificant, at least in contrast to the harms imposed by the purveyors of tobacco, according to research. It's the prohibition of cannabis that produces occasional violence, not the growing of the plant.

A crackdown on cannabis cultivation will only raise the stakes for those involved in the industry, making violence a more likely by-product of the trade. More specifically, consider the costs to the province. For the past decade B.C. has been convicting about 500 cannabis cultivators a year, according to recent research; the costs of imprisoning these folks will be about $70,000 per year, per person, and this doesn't even begin to take account of the capital costs of construction for new jail cells. By law, the province must pay for the costs of any sentence of two years less one day, or less -- and we can assume that the cost of incarcerating marijuana cultivators, formerly subjected to fines (and producing revenue for the province) will be somewhere between $20 and $40 million per year. That's the kind of money that would fund anywhere from 200 to 400 new teachers in the province -- wouldn't you rather have your tax dollars spent on that kind of initiative?

The picture is just as bad or worse with the other much less popular illegal drugs: heroin, cocaine, crack and crystal meth. The convicted users and dealers in these drugs are often individuals with mental health and substance abuse difficulties. These people are already in significant supply in our provincial correctional centres, smearing feces on the walls of their cells and slashing themselves; the crime bill will only serve to add to their numbers inside prison walls, invoking a blind morality as a singular approach to what would be so much better treated as a public health problem.

What's most disappointing in the premier's approach is her use of an ongoing federal Conservative tactic -- accuse those who oppose the legislation as supportive of criminals, wanting to increase crime, and willing to let both sex offenders and violent offenders roam our streets.

It would be better if the premier did what her predecessor Gordon Campbell did before instituting the carbon tax -- look carefully at all the evidence and propose policy that is consistent with the best available information, not policy that is simply based on a perceived political expediency.

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