The Harper Index

Mandatory minimum sentences proposed while US states repeal them

Liberals cave, so Canada will face the kind of swollen prison populations that have forced states into crisis, with some contemplating mass releases.

NDP MP Joe Comartin says mandatory minimum sentences do not work and will be costly for Ish Theilheimer

A update, March 5, 2009: Today the Liberal Caucus expressed support for the Harper Conservatives' drug crime bill, which includes the kind of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes now being discarded in the USA, as this story indicates. Liberal Justice Critic Dominic LeBlanc did not respond this week to repeated requests from for an interview on this subject.

OTTAWA, March 4, 2009, Last week justice minister Rob Nicholson re-introduced legislation calling for mandatory minimum prison sentences for gang-related and drug crimes.

Bill C- 15 was introduced on a Friday, often the day governments do things for which they don't want a lot of publicity. Mandatory minimum sentences may fall into that category because they are becoming unpopular in the USA, the only nation where they have been used extensively.

"A number of states are repealing those for two reasons," NDP justice critic Joe Comartin told in an interview. "One, they don't work. The amount of drug consumption and drug crime has continued on, and all the violence attendant to it. But secondly, they've put so many people into jail that the states are not able to afford the jails anymore. We've got states in the United States that are spending more on incarcerating people than they're spending on the public education systems."

The law could stretch provincial budgets to the breaking point, says Comartin. "It's a problem because anything under two years you go into provincial jails, you don't go into the federal system. We've got the federal government passing these laws, but the vast majority of people who are going to be incarcerated are going to be incarcerated in the provincial [jails], and the provinces, many of which can't afford it, are going to have to build more jails."

Comartin said the law would not stop drug production. "It's supposed to be targeted at gangs," he said. "The reality is that the people who are going to get caught in this legislation... are low-end. From the standpoint of the drug lords, the people who manipulate the system, this legislation isn't going to do anything at all."

To view the full Joe Comartin interview on YouTube, click below:

A US campaigner against mandatory minimum sentencing was shocked to learn of the government's move when reached in Washington, by phone. "Isn't [Stephen Harper] paying attention to what's going on in this country?" asked Julie Stewart, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Mandatory minimum sentencing is "sinking state budgets" to such an extent that in Virginia, not at all a progressive state, "They're thinking of releasing thousands of prisoners."

"It's remarkable, given the economic situation in our country and yours that he would be considering adding a burden" of this nature to [provincial] budgets, she said.

The trend in the USA is toward reform of these laws rather than repeal, so as to avoid political controversy. In Michigan this was done in 2003. New York is going the same route. California, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, has a prison population of 200,000.

Several factors are pushing the pace of reform in the USA, Stewart says, including the high costs of mandatory minimum sentencing, the growing recognition that it is "not fair and racist," and overwhelming evidence that it "is not effective in fighting crime."

Links and sources
  What Are Mandatory Minimums? Families Against Mandatory Minimums
  Canada's drug crime bill brings calls for caution from US, Dose, April 25, 2008
  Liberals move to fast track crime legislation, Liberal Caucus news release, March 5, 2009

Posted: March 04, 2009

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