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Conservative Government Ignoring Own Advice on Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Tories warned early automatic prison terms won't work
July 6, 2006
Janice Tibbetts
CanWest News Service

OTTAWA -- The new Conservative government, within days of taking office, was warned by senior federal bureaucrats a central election pledge to impose new automatic prison terms won't deter crime nor protect the public, internal documents obtained by CanWest News Service reveal.

The Harper Conservatives apparently ignored the advice from Justice Department lawyers, which was contained in a briefing book for Justice Minister Vic Toews released Wednesday through an Access to Information request.

"Research into the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences has established that they do not have any obvious special deterrent or educative effect and are no more effective than less serious sanctions in preventing crime," said the briefing book.

It added minimum mandatory sentences have "no discernible benefits" in terms of public safety, and could run afoul of Charter of Rights and Freedoms protection ag.ainst cruel and unusual punishment.

The documents also caution minimum jail terms could backfire because "experience has shown" they prompt more people to plea bargain their way out of jail.

Toews was also cautioned about the challenges he would face if the Conservatives went ahead with their plan, but the information is blacked out in the document.

Toews introduced legislation two months ago to impose new or increased minimum mandatory sentences of three-to-10 years for 18 crimes involving guns, asserting that they would cut down on crime.

The lesser sentences would be reserved for first-time offenders and the most severe terms for serious, repeat offenders. For example, a new offence of breaking and entering and attempting to steal a weapon would automatically carry a three-year prison term.

The Criminal Code already contains minimum mandatory prison sentences for 29 crimes 20 of which were imposed 10 years ago as part of the former Liberal government's gun-control legislation.

The Conservatives, motivated in part by an increase in gun violence in major Canadian cities, particularly Toronto, say heavier penalties send a public message to would-be criminals.

The Justice Department's advice echoes warnings from academics and interest groups outside government.

Minimum mandatory sentences are controversial because they eliminate flexibility for judges to impose sentences as they see fit. Many criminologists are also dismissive of automatic jail terms because they say they clog prisons and there is scant evidence they deter crime.

Toews, in introducing the legislation in May, publicly denounced claims minimum sentences do not deter crime.

"I'd like to see some of these statistics to say it doesn't work," he said. "People repeat statements that just aren't accurate. Mandatory minimum prison sentences, in fact, do work. All all the evidence in fact suggests that they mean a significant reduction in crime."

Toews cited statistics showing reduced crime rates of up to 40 per cent in several American states after they imposed minimum jail terms.

An outside study prepared for the Justice Department last fall, however, said several jurisdictions, including South Africa, Australia, England, and the state of Michigan, have retreated from minimum sentences in recent years.

For example, mandatory sentencing laws for certain drug violations were eliminated in Michigan in 2002, allowing courts to consider mitigating factors, wrote University of Ottawa criminologist Julian Roberts.

He also noted the Australia Bureau of Statistics reported in 2003 the prison population in its northern territory increased 42 per cent since the inception of mandatory sentencing. Data suggests the stiffened penalties have not lowered crime rates.

Several criminologists predict the new mandatory penalties will be an expensive drain on the prison system because they will put more people in jail and keep them there longer.

The Justice Department also warned of increased costs in its briefing book for the new justice minister.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day confirmed in May the government has set aside between $220 million and $245 million over the next five years to build new prison cells, in anticipation of passing new laws to impose longer sentences.

The money, however, does not include the cost of the Conservative's election promise to impose new minimum mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes, which critics predict would flood prisons, as it has in the United States. Mandatory prison terms for drug trafficking alone could put thousands more prisoners in the federal system, which houses 12,500 inmates.

Toews, in introducing his legislation for minimum mandatory sentences for gun-related crimes, said the minority Conservatives took into account the concerns of the opposition parties and decided to drop drug offences from the bill.

While separate legislation was promised, it did not materialize before MPs recessed for the summer.

The Liberals and the NDP, mindful of public concerns about firearm violence, have both called for increased automatic jail terms for offences committed with guns. But they oppose similar laws for drug crimes.

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More information on Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Families Against Mandatory Minimums (U.S.)