Sarah Leamon: Election could jeopardize legislation to scrap mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences

Supporters of Bill C-22 say it would help address systemic overrepresentation of minorities in court

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      With yet another federal election looming, the stakes are particularly high for a number of hotly anticipated Liberal bills that could get lost on the House floor. 

      When it comes to new legislation, an election always brings uncertainty. If the current government cannot maintain its control in its minority situation, a number of bills could end up in the trash.

      Even if the Liberals can keep their grasp on power, an election will likely mean longer than usual delays in moving matters along. This could jeopardize some bills altogether.

      For many, the fate of Bill C-22 is of particular concern. It's currently stuck in a second reading debate, which means that it is still in its infancy. It could very likely fall to the wayside as a result of the election. 

      One of the Liberals' most controversial bills to date, it is aimed at reforming our criminal justice system by reducing prosecutions for low-level drug offences while simultaneously scrapping mandatory minimum sentences for some associated offences. 

      If passed, Bill C-22 would require both police and federal prosecutors to consider alternatives to criminal charges in cases of simple drug possession. 

      Alternatives to prosecution could include the decision not to prosecute at all, to issue warning letters or to make referrals to public health treatment facilities.  This would, theoretically, keep offenders out of prison and steer them in the right direction—toward avenues for rehabilitation. 

      In addition to assisting drug users, proponents of the bill say that this is also necessary to help address systemic racism in Canada, which is particularly pronounced in the criminal justice system. They point to racial bias in policing and the marginalization of visible minorities, resulting in disproportionately higher rates of incarceration for Indigenous people, Black people, and other visible minorities. 

      Many of these individuals are incarcerated as a result of low-level drug offences, which carry mandatory minimum sentences. 

      Eliminating these sentences and putting rehabilitative measures in place to aid drug offenders may help to even out the system and foster a more compassionate approach to drug use. 

      But not everyone supports the bill. 

      Some feel it should be left on the chopping block—and for very different reasons.  While some say that it goes too far, others say it does not go far enough.   

      Those who argue that the Bill C-22 is too extreme say that it could lead to an increase in community violence and crime rates. They maintain that some may be more inclined to commit a crime they otherwise would not if mandatory minimums are done away with and penalties are lessened.

      This “tough on crime” approach is rarely effective. There is little evidence to suggest that low-level drug offenders are deterred by harsher laws and more stringent penalties. 

      More often than not, those struggling with addiction do not take time to consider the consequences of their actions. Numerous studies on addiction have shown that the threat of penal consequences has little to no deterrent effect on those who are in the throes of addiction or dealing with mental-health issues. 

      Incarceration is an ineffective response to those who may simply need a positive nudge to turn their lives around. Bill C-22 recognizes this reality. 

      In spite of this, however, some argue that it does not do enough to change our approach to both addiction and institutionalized racism. By and large, these critics want to see the decriminalization of simple possession, rather than a relaxing of the rules around it. They support increased access to community support programs and educational initiatives. 

      While these suggestions are valid, we have to remember that Rome was not built in a day. 

      Although desirable, a one-size-fits all solution to complex, longstanding societal issues may be unfeasible. A single bill pertaining to criminal justice reform cannot be expected to overhaul the system entirely, eradicating racism, and curing addiction; but it can be a step in the right direction.

      Bill C-22 ultimately does more good than harm. It is a substantial piece of legislation that is squarely aimed at addressing racism, addiction, and mental-health issues in our community through the tangible reform of our criminal justice system. 

      It would be a shame to see this one end up lost on the floor.