My last column began dealing with some of my thoughts on the use of prisons in Canada. It turns out this is a timely topic as the Conservative government just tabled the Safer Streets and Communities Act, which combines nine separate crime measures that the Conservatives were unable to enact until now.
Some highlights of the bill:
• Changing the Youth Criminal Justice Act to keep violent and repeat young offenders in jail while awaiting trial;
• Preventing judges from imposing conditional sentence orders (aka house arrest) for crimes involving serious personal injury, crimes which carry a maximum prison term of 14 years or more, and other specific offences (such as theft over $5,000) when prosecuted by indictment;
• Replacing pardons with “record suspensions” and denying the suspensions to people convicted of sexually abusing children and those convicted by indictment of more than three offences;
• “Lawful access” bills making it easier for police to get wiretaps;
• Imposing mandatory penalties for certain drug crimes (i.e. possession of six marijuana plants for the purpose of trafficking would result in six months in jail).
While making our communities safe is a laudable goal, the way the Conservatives are going about it is draconian, short-sighted, and will ultimately cost society more than it will protect it. The solution to crime is not building more prisons. Criminologists have studied this phenomenon for centuries and the reality is that sending people to jail does not prevent crime. We only need to look to our neighbours in the south to see how well that social experiment has worked.
The right to be presumed innocent is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To keep a young offender in jail pending a trial based only on the charge and their record will do more harm than good. Keeping young offenders in jail has not been proven to reduce youth crime rates. Where are the safeguards for youths who commit crime due to mental health issues, developmental disorders, or drug/substance abuse? What about youths who are being controlled by gangs and other unsavoury characters?
Denying “suspensions” to persons with more than three convictions for indictable offences is manifestly unfair and is reminiscent of the U.S. “three strikes you’re out” policy. This does not take into account what those offences are or when those offences took place. The way the bill reads is that if you have three shoplifting convictions that were prosecuted indictably, you would not be eligible for a “suspension”. Studies have shown that jails more often than not produce bitter, jaded individuals who become further disenfranchised and hardened by their time in custody. If the bottom line is keeping communities safe, how will that be accomplished by putting up further barriers to those who sincerely seek a new life for themselves? How will denying them a pardon assist them in becoming productive members of society? It won’t.
Everyone supports intrusive police measures when they think the police are investigating criminals, however, innocent people are also caught by the wide net that is cast by wiretaps and search warrants. There already exist numerous investigative techniques that the police can and do avail themselves of and there are requirements and safeguards in place to ensure that the police don’t encroach on citizens’ privacy any more than required. That’s the way it should be—there should always be judicial oversight into what the police can and cannot do when they are investigating crimes.
Too often the criminal justice system is expected to clean up society and deal with the scumbags. Instead of putting what little money is currently available towards building mega-prisons, the government should spend it where it will really matter—supporting families and children, ensuring people are fed and housed, and addressing drug addiction and mental health issues. All of these factors are often the underlying reasons why people commit crime in the first place. There will always be evil people who do terrible things simply because they want to. That’s only a small percentage of the criminal population and criminal law should not be crafted in an ideological, knee-jerk response to the actions of the worst of the worst.
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.