“Surely one key test of any society is how we treat the most vulnerable and, even more particularly, the most despised. Justice policies offer a glimpse into the soul of a nation.”  

The government’s criminal justice policy shapes our country, and will have far reaching impact on all Canadians….

see also: Open Letter To Stephen Harper

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Omnibus Crime Bill C-10

Policy Identification & Letter to the Editor

Nanci Bell

Booth University College

October 5, 2011

Introduction

An important area of social policy that becomes emotionally charged at election time is that of criminal justice. In order to win votes politicians play on the insecurities and fears of citizens, promising to make our country safer in a wide variety of ways from preventative programs to tougher punishments. And yet, despite rhetoric about how one party might get tough on crime while the other gets smart, once elections are over and promises fade, the legislation and principles that form public policy and practice must be both tough and smart. Defining what that means in a transparent, progressive and proven way in accordance with the will of the people is the job of our legislators.

We must all realize that criminal justice policy does not merely involve the most hardened murderers and terrorists out there, but any of us might have brothers, cousins, friends and neighbours who have fallen into troubled times and become enmeshed in serious legal consequences. As a social worker dealing with at-risk youth, we see that interventions can make the difference between their going deeper into trouble and making a change for the better. But beyond personal or professional interest, criminal justice policy should be of concern to every Canadian if for no other reason than the amount of our tax money that goes into the justice system. At a deeper level, we should take pride in our progressive charter of rights and freedoms, and the high quality of life that we hope to maintain in this country. “Surely one key test of any society is how we treat the most vulnerable and, even more particularly, the most despised. Justice policies offer a glimpse into the soul of a nation” (Himelfarb, 2011[as1] ). When our elected officials begin to move in the wrong direction, there should be an outcry of non-confidence, which is exactly what folded Harper’s minority government last session. The government’s criminal justice policy shapes our country, and will have far reaching impact on all Canadians.

The Policy: Tough-on-crime

As P.M. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party began a new session of Parliament with a majority government this fall, his first big move on September 20 was to table the omnibus crime bill containing various laws or amendments that had been previously defeated. Called the Safe Streets and Communities Act, it forms part of the party’s “Tough-on-crime” policy. The omnibus contains nine acts totaling about 110 pages of proposals, including changes to drug laws, youth sentencing, the pardons system, detention of refugees, parole, house arrest and anti-terrorism measures. The bill “represents the biggest change to our justice system in recent memory” (Himelfarb, 2011). Though some applaud the proposed tougher penalties for sexual offences against children and measures to prevent human trafficking and exploitation, others fear that judges will have less discretion with increased mandatory minimum sentences and an end to the use of conditional sentences for many crimes. The policy is intended to protect Canadians and increase our safety by imposing tougher penalties as a deterrent to criminals.

Though crime rates are down, with the number of reported crimes in 2010 being the fewest since 1973, the Tories are determined to push their agenda. “We’re not governing on the basis of the latest statistics, ” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said at a news conference” (Tories table tough-on-crime bill, 2011). But neither are they disclosing where the money will come from to cover these extensive changes, or where the cuts will come in other programs to cover the increased costs of building more jails and incarcerating more criminals.

At its basic level the policy targets sexual predators, organized drug dealers, violent young offenders, those guilty of violent and serious crimes, terrorists and those involved in human trafficking. But by throwing a wide net with mandatory minimums, there may be many incarcerated who could have been otherwise conditionally sentenced and rehabilitated. As the John Howard Society has learned, “restorative resolution clients were found to have a recidivism rate of only 18 per cent, compared to a 45 per cent rate of recidivism for those incarcerated” (Hutton, 2011). How can the government claim to be protecting citizens when their policy relies on methods that have been proven ineffective?

The Legislative Process

The Conservatives were working as a minority government last session when these bills failed to pass individually. Now Harper hopes to pass the omnibus through within 100 sitting days of Parliament. However, as the bill goes through reading, debates, study, amendments and votes, there will be time for the opposition to stall and refine the proposed legislation. Hopefully what is good will pass into law and those areas that are counterproductive will be defeated or amended so as to maintain the kind of progressive justice Canadians expect.

As our textbook points out, in Canada all parties have moved to the right, favouring balanced budgets, reduced debt and “a leaner social welfare system” (Chappell, 2006, p. 47). And so it appears on this issue, some of the NDP policy seems very similar to the Conservative’s. According to their website, Manitoba’s NDP are “pushing politicians in Ottawa to create tougher laws that will see mandatory sentences for knife crimes, home invasions and car-jackings, and changing the Youth Criminal Justice Act to better deal with out of control youth” (Today’s NDP, 2011). It is never clear what is rhetoric in election times and what will actually be implemented. In their role as opposition, the NDP needs to become grounded in current research into best practices and vote for what will actually protect public safety, freedom and justice for all citizens.

Whatever bills get passed into law will require efforts at the national, provincial and municipal levels to ensure these measures are implemented. All parties are promising more police officers on the streets, and our jails have had dangerously overcrowded conditions for years, so the city and province look forward to federal funding to solve existing issues. But the tough-on-crime policy will create more problems as mandatory minimums and cutting conditional sentences will greatly increase incarcerations. We need to learn from our American neighbours’ negative experience. Over the last 30 years “the U.S. government increased spending on corrections by about 700 per cent, at the expense of other programs… In recent months a wide range of U.S. politicians … have spoken out against the use of mandatory minimums and have urged Canada not to copy U.S. mistakes” (Hutton, 2011). Hopefully, as the ominbus bill works its way through the legislative process, the government will not choose to sacrifice the many mental health, restorative justice, preventative and rehabilitative programs that have proven success rates in reducing crime.

Impact

Many have already weighed in on the policy: NDP justice critic Joe Comartin is quoted as saying, “[The Tories] have yet to produce one viable study that shows that deterrence works. Prevention works, deterrence does not” (Tories table tough-on-crime bill, 2011). John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba is quoted in the Free Press article “Conditional sentencing works best” (2011) saying, “the JHS has joined the Canadian Bar Association and prominent jurists in opposing the mandatory sentences because it amounts to breaking something that has, by all accounts, been working quite well.”  Not only do conditional sentences have a high success rate, but they are cheaper for taxpayers, since individuals on sentence usually work to support themselves and their families. The cost of incarcerating one adult is estimated at $65,000 a year. Critics say the proposed measures will be “hugely expensive and have been proven ineffective – or worse – over three decades of increasingly draconian “tough-on-crime” campaigns in the United States” (Tories table tough-on-crime bill, 2011). Other critics say, “the omnibus bill was condemned by criminal lawyers, prisoner advocates and political critics who pointed to falling crime rates and said the country cannot afford a massive prison expansion” (Tonda, 2011).

Perhaps in the current economic crisis, the Conservative government is pushing the tough-on-crime policy to divert attention away from the looming impact of the global economic downturn. Perhaps the Harper government favours a Keynesian approach, filling up the court system and building prisons as an employment project for out of work Canadians.[as2]  Time will tell the economic impact of the policy, since the relevant budget has not been released.

Though the government spin is to promise a great impact on the peace and security of Canadians, the voices of those who work in the system must be heard. With increased incarceration comes the impact to families and children, increasing poverty to the collateral victims of crime. The root causes of crime need to be addressed, and preventing recurrence can be achieved through proven programs.

Values

The values behind the policy imply a greater distance between the good/victims/innocent and the bad/criminals/guilty. This is a typical attempt to demonize the enemy in order to incite fear and justify retribution. There is a misinformed value put on punishment as a deterrent, and it undervalues the many social programs have actually been successful. This aligns with Chappell’s (2006) comparison of political ideologies: Conservatism values social traditions, class distinctions and is patriarchal, believing that charity should be given sparingly. Though they would say they value peace, justice, public safety and freedom for the innocent, in fact, our government is planning further bills to permit surveillance of our internet activity and detention of anyone suspected of terrorist activity. As we are on the brink of giving up more freedoms and returning to a time of greater punishment and government control, Canadians must ask themselves if the Conservative policy is in line with our values.

Conclusion

In general we expect our nation’s government to form policies and fund programs that work for the good of all. With the omnibus bill that the current Conservative government is determined to push through the legislature, there are some needed changes, but there are others proposed that should be setting off alarms across the country. When I think of friends or family who have served conditional sentences, continued to work to support their families as well as doing the harder work of rehabilitation, I can’t imagine how years of incarceration would have been better for all concerned. In working with youth, I have seen early lock-ups achieve only the work of hardening and educating the youth in the ways we don’t want them to go. Positive rehabilitative programs exist and studies show much better success rates than punishment. Judges need to have discretion to hear circumstances and put in place what is best for each case. The policy that includes more minimum sentences and less conditional sentences is not tough on crime, it’s just trying to look tough. Canadians want violent repeat offenders, child abusers and human traffickers to be off the streets, but there must be clearer policy that can achieve this. In a time when crime is at a 40-year low, the government’s tough-on-crime policy seems out of place. One wonders what the real agenda is.

 

 

References

Chappell, R. (2006). Social welfare in Canadian society (4th ed.). Ont: Toronto: Nelson.

Himelfarb, A. (2011). Is it getting tough on crime, or getting tough on the poor? CCPA Monitor,             18(3), 14-15. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Hutton, J. (2011, September 17). Conditional sentencing works best. Winnipeg Free Press, p.             A19.

Today’s NDP (2011). Our plan: Fighting crime. Retrieved October 2, 2011 from             http://todaysndp.ca/protecting-you-and-your-family.

Tonda, M. (2011, September 21). Tories recycle crime bills conservatives roll nine past             proposals into one massive omnibus bill. Record, The (Kitchener/Cambridge/Waterloo,             ON). Retrieved October 2, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Tories table tough-on-crime bill. (2011, September 21). Winnipeg Free Press, p. A3.

 

Appendix

Letter to the Editor

I have appreciated some articles you have published since the Harper government has come out with their “tough-on-crime” omnibus bill. John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba presents the real evidence of what works in dealing with offenders facing sentences less than two years (Conditional sentencing works best, Sept.17). The high success rate of Restorative Resolutions should convince voters to speak out against the fear mongering that is behind the Conservative government’s tactics. We want our tax dollars to be smart-on-crime, not just punitive, which only perpetuates crime.

Tom Oleson’s article From nightshirts to nightmares (Sept. 24) draws connections between the story of the serial killer Clifford Olson who continues to apply for parole as he dies of cancer in jail at a huge cost to tax payers, and the story of an 18 year-old single welfare woman sent to jail for shoplifting a t-shirt for her baby. Oleson agues that the omnibus bill introduced into Parliament will force mandatory minimum sentences on those who need other more rehabilitative measures, and will not be harsh enough for those convicted of multiple violent crimes who drain the system for years on end. He warns the omnibus bill should be broken up into its separate acts and each debated for its own merit.

I am glad there are voices of reason being published in your paper at a time when the media is full of rhetoric aimed at increasing our fear for safety when we are actually in a 40-year decline in crime rates. I have been thankful that judges could use discretion in cases I have known that have been successfully resolved with conditional sentences. The tough-on-crime policy is scary to thinking Canadians who know the reality behind the rhetoric.

Nanci Bell

Winnipeg

 

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