Pivot Legal Society lawyer Scott Bernstein is hoping a new report released today (May 30) will act as a “call to arms” for lawyers across the country to challenge mandatory minimum sentences for marginalized drug users.
Bernstein, who co-authored the report, said the legal society identified some Charter rights that it believes will be affected by mandatory minimum sentences for a range of drug crimes. The sentencing provisions were introduced in the Conservative government’s omnibus crime legislation that was passed by Parliament in March 2012.
“It’s not a political move anymore—we’re looking to activate and inspire people to bring legal action to challenge these,” Bernstein told the Straight by phone today (May 30) after releasing the report in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. “The way the laws get struck down is through them being unconstitutional, and so that’s the strongest leg we have to go in with this.”
The report argues that sections 7 and 15 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms “open new avenues for challenging the constitutionality of the amendments brought about by the SSCA (Safe Streets and Communities Act).”
“Our focus was when you talk about specifically a marginalized low-income community of people who use drugs that are caught in the net of this legislation, the impact is actually much more severe, and so it’s actually quite a severe and harmful infringement of charter rights, we’re expecting,” said Bernstein.
According to Pivot, the report's findings suggest that certain provisions in the federal legislation will disproportionately affect "people living with drug dependence, Aboriginal people, and youth in or leaving the foster care system".
Berstein added that low-income people dependent on drugs tend to struggle with other challenges.
“It’s well documented that people don’t just randomly become addicted to strong hard drugs,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with childhood trauma, has to do with abuse, it has to do with mental health issues, and it has to do with poverty. So all of these issues intersect.”
Pivot’s report is based on a year-long research study and 19 “life story” interviews with low-income drug users in Vancouver and Victoria.
Aside from mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, Pivot’s other concerns with the omnibus crime legislation include restrictions of the use of conditional sentences, changes to the conditions under which pardons can be granted, and changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The report argues that “tough on crime” measures included in the Conservative government’s omnibus crime legislation are not an effective deterrent for low-income people who are drug dependent, and that they will have a negative impact on the health of these communities.
“The effects of longer and more frequent periods of incarceration include deepening drug dependence, transmission of diseases, psychological harms, failure to develop healthy coping and interpersonal skills, learned dependence on the prison institution, loss of supportive and protective relationships, loss of future employment opportunities and elevated rates of recidivism,” the report reads.
The full report, titled “Throwing Away the Keys: The Human and Social Cost of Mandatory Minimum Sentences,” is available at Pivot Legal Society’s website.