It’s up to the Senate to stop the Crime Bill

The omnibus crime bill passed the House of Commons handily, thanks to the Conservative majority and the invocation of closure and time limits throughout the process. It is now over to the Upper House to hear evidence and make a decision about Bill C-10. For the second time in living memory, Conservative Senators should vote against the government’s legislation.

In 1991, women across Canada were relieved when a bill recriminalizing abortion failed to gain the support of the Senate. Women Senators crossed party lines to vote against the bill, which resulted in a tie vote and the defeat of the legislation. While the crime bill does not invoke the emotional response that abortion does, and while there is not a cohesive group representing opposition to the bill (such as the 52% of the population opposed to the abortion bill), there are ample reasons for the Senate to veto this bill.

Ever since the lead-up to the 2006 election, many voices have been raised against the tough-on-crime agenda. The Correctional Service of Canada deplored mandatory minimum sentences and lauded sentences of house arrest. Police chiefs declared that we do not need to incarcerate hundreds and thousands of people, but only those few who are dangerous. Everyone engaged in criminal justice for young offenders, both here and abroad, praised Canada’s current track record on youth crime. Lawyers of every stripe and persuasion argued against the bill. And so did victims and victims advocates. Now the public is beginning to realize that the legislation will not only destroy lives and communities, but it will probably produce rather than reduce crime while bankrupting the treasury.

The Conservative government has offered a number of reasons for pursuing tough-on-crime:

The public wants it. Actually, when people are given accurate information about our justice system (already very tough on crime) and about this legislation (useless to reduce crime but very expensive), they very quickly do a 180 and come down against Bill C-10. 93% of Canadians feel safe anyway, and crime is declining, so whence the panic by Conservatives to lock up thousands more Canadians, most of them non-violent?

Victims want Bill C-10. If you read the evidence given by witnesses to various parliamentary committees, you will see that highly reputable victims advocates in fact have lobbied aggressively against the tough-on-crime agenda. They say that they know what is good for victims, and it is not good to pursue this incarceration model. To reduce victimization, it is necessary to support programs of prevention and rehabilitation.

The legislation is directed at organized crime, and at violent, repeat offenders. Nothing in the legislation will help to apprehend crime kingpins or violent, repeat offenders. The law simply applies lengthy sentences once offences have been committed, and most of those punished will be far down the hierarchy of any organization. Instead of getting in front of the crime by funding preventive programs that reduce crime, this law comes in after the fact to punish offenders, and nothing more.

Long sentences act as a deterrent. Not so. Ask anybody who works in the system, or who has analyzed the data. Longer sentences tend to lead to more rather than less recidivism by offenders. And potential offenders are not affected by the prospect of long sentences because they are (a) acting spontaneously and not thinking about consequences, or (b) planning not to get caught, in which case the consequences are immaterial.

At no time has the government ever offered a credible justification for this tough-on-crime approach. Nor has it offered a credible estimate for the costs, which will be in the billions of dollars. Think about that: billions of your tax dollars to produce a negative result.

If this bill does become law, it will take decades to undo the damage. It is mean, vindictive, brass-knuckles legislation, and runs counter to everything we know about reducing crime.

The bill comes before the Senate in January. The government has promised to have it passed by sometime in March. Time is short, but the momentum is against Bill C-10. Let’s hope the Senate will soberly reflect upon the consequences of this legislation and defeat it.

Paula Mallea, B.A., M.A., Ll.B, practised criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston, and Manitoba. She acted mainly as defence counsel, with a part-time stint as prosecutor, and spent hundreds of hours in penitentiaries representing inmates. She is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She is the author of The Fear Factor: Stephen Harper’s Tough On Crime Agenda. Her book, Fearmonger, a detailed critique of the Harper tough-on-crime agenda, published by Lorimer, is available in bookstores and online.

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