It beats me why so many American conservatives have smartened up about when it makes sense to send people to jail when Canadian conservatives — at least the ones who count — clearly haven’t.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2002, when Canadian conservatives weren’t afraid to call themselves “progressive,” Pierre Claude Nolin chaired a special Senate committee on illegal drugs. Nolin was, and still is, a devout conservative. Yet his committee recommended that the sale of marijuana in Canada be legalized and taxed, thereby removing profits from gangs and organized crime and avoiding ruining the lives of users.
Flash forward to last year, when Stephen Harper’s government pushed through a bill that would require mandatory prison terms for anyone possessing six marijuana plants — a minimum six-month sentence, with a maximum of 14 years.
The Americans have learned from their mistakes. We’re making new ones. Back when Nolin was recommending less incarceration for recreational drug use in Canada, American authorities were engaged in a furious all-out war on the use of illicit drugs, handing out mandatory sentences until their jails were bursting at the seams. A decade later, Republicans and Democrats alike are retreating from mandatory-incarceration laws at breakneck speed.
They are joining forces on this issue because both sides now recognize that incarceration for minor drug offences isn’t accomplishing anything, but it’s costing billions of dollars. They are finally recognizing that people with real drug problems need help that they aren’t going to get in jail.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and half the prisoners are there on drug convictions. With plenty of conservative support, the Obama administration has issued directives designed to lock up fewer people for shorter periods of time.
This is progressive thinking.
And regressive thinking? The Conservative government remains adamant that mandatory, one-size-fits-all sentences are the best way to fight crime. It has indicated it is willing to spend an estimated $9 billion to imprison more Canadians.
The average cost of keeping a Canadian in prison for a year is more than $113,000, which is money well spent for violent offenders. But why spend it locking up minor drug offenders? The prisons budget just keeps growing, and the system is already costing Canadian taxpayers 61 per cent more than it was when Stephen Harper took power.
There are ways of pre-empting crime instead of locking people up. One is better policing. Another is providing better social services. Yet the government is skimping on spending on the RCMP. Most provinces are desperately short of cash for social services. The prisons are becoming our new mental institutions.
The best way to combat the abuse of drugs is through education, the way the federal government dramatically reduced the use of tobacco products in the first decade of this century.
Harper and his government have ignored a public appeal from prominent Toronto lawyer Edward L. Greenspan, former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry and criminology professor Anthony Doob of the University of Toronto. They pointed out, among other things, that with mandatory minimum sentences, the legal system is going to become even more clogged than it is now, as accused fight charges that could take them to jail. They also noted that if minor offenders are convicted, they are more likely to re-offend than if they had not been sent to jail.
Now the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, headed by Vancouver’s pragmatic police chief, Jim Chu, has recommended that police officers be given the option of handing out tickets for simple possession of marijuana, rather than laying charges.
The Conservative government obviously believes that mandatory minimum sentences are good bones to throw to the party’s core constituency: hard-line conservatives. They are forgetting that being a staunch conservative doesn’t make you dim.
Republican governors and legislators in states such as Texas, Ohio and South Carolina have abandoned minimum sentences. They know their core constituencies. They must have figured out that there are now a heck of a lot of strong conservatives who have awakened to the fact that a huge amount of money is being spent — and large numbers of lives are being ruined — for no good reason.
Colin Kenny is former chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence and deputy chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs.
© Copyright 2013