(Policy papers 2012-2013)
All Canadians want to be safe on their streets and in their homes, but this goal will not be achieved by building more prisons or by harsher sentencing of criminals. Diverting valuable resources into incarceration and away from prevention and rehabilitation efforts will strain the system while doing nothing to improve public safety. A new Criminal Justice Council to oversee changes to the Criminal Code, and an independent and transparent judicial appointments process, would help to protect the integrity of the justice system.
Tous les Canadiens veulent se sentir en sécurité dans la rue et chez eux, mais ce but ne sera pas atteint par la construction de plus de prisons ou en condamnant plus sévèrement les criminels. Détourner des ressources précieuses vers l’incarcération et loin des efforts de prévention et de réinsertion finira par mettre le système à rude épreuve tout en ne faisant rien pour améliorer la sécurité publique. Un nouveau Conseil de justice pénale qui superviserait les changements du Code pénal, ainsi qu’un processus indépendant et transparent de nominations judiciairesaiderait à protéger l’intégrité du système judiciaire.
Canada is engaging in a billion-dollar program to build more prisons in the mistaken belief that our judges have been too lenient and that there is a pressing public need to put more people in more jails. Many people support the initiative, partly because the current government has overblown the incidence and impact of crime, in a partisan effort to play on Canadians’ vulnerabilities and anxieties. Rather than consider more effective measures to prevent crime and to support at-risk communities, the government, for its own partisan reasons, has opted for retribution and fear-mongering.
Every shred of evidence points to the fallacy of the government’s position. All experts agree that crime rates are decreasing. The vast majority of judges exercise their discretion in sentencing with intelligence and fairness. The proposed mandatory minimum sentences (mainly for drug crimes) will simply increase court backlogs. These retrograde and regrettable changes will further unbalance the objectives of rehabilitation and deterrence.
Evidence-based studies overwhelmingly show that more rigid sentencing does not produce a safer society. Instead, it diverts valuable resources away from proactive strategies that have already been proven to reduce and prevent crime.
Mandatory minimum sentences take away from the flexibility that is essential to making the court system work. Crimes may be the same, but criminals differ. Two people convicted of the same crime do not necessarily deserve the same sentence. With mandatory minimums, the large racial disparities in the inmate population — already a scandal — will increase significantly. Incentives for guilty pleas will be removed, and the number of charges going to trial will rise. The entire apparatus of justice — judges, defence counsel, prosecutors, and police — will feel the negative impacts of these strains on the system.
Other aspects of the government’s law-and-order agenda have also raised widespread concerns, including the unsuccessful attempt to shut down Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection centre (the Supreme Court of Canada declared Ottawa’s actions to be contrary to principles of fundamental justice and unsupported by evidence) and the much criticized and clumsy attack on Internet privacy rights in the proposed Safe Streets and Communities Act.
Changes affecting criminal justice affect the fundamentals of Canada’s social fabric. Such changes must not be made by political caprice or to pander to the mistaken view that harsh punishments yield safer societies. A new independent Criminal Justice Council to advise the government on all proposed Criminal Code changes regarding new crimes, penalties, or sentencing would ensure that such amendments would never again be knee-jerk reactions to short-term political pressures. It might also provide a forum to arrive at a public consensus on more realistic anti-drug policies and for measures such as the legalization and regulation of marijuana.
The government should also establish a completely independent and transparent process at the federal level for the appointment of all judges to the provincial superior courts and courts of appeal, the Federal Court, and the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as for the appointment of all members of quasi-judicial boards and commissions, such as the Immigration and Refugee Board. The misuse of a government’s patronage power, however infrequently, taints not just the individual appointee but also all quasi-judicial and judicial appointments, and it undermines public confidence in the fundamental integrity of courts, boards, and commissions.
Crime prevention initiatives must be revamped so that we balance national objectives with local imperatives. Ontario’s African-Canadian community prepared an action plan in 2005 that put forward many valuable initiatives to strengthen communities in Ontario, particularly those struggling with a young population who have few social and economic opportunities and frequently experience exclusion. Rather than being welcomed and supported, the group found it difficult to get federal attention, let alone critical financial support, because much of what they suggested could not be pigeonholed into the conditions for National Crime Prevention Strategy funding.
Finally, community police are an invaluable resource and critical component of any effective crime prevention strategy. Canadian municipalities need financial support to help them expand community policing and to ensure that their forces properly reflect the diverse population of Canada (as should also the RCMP).