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by Bryn Levy

The Harper government's crime policies are going to cost Canadians a huge amount of money.  But they won't actually reduce crime.

On Jan. 29 Stephen Harper appointed five new senators who will support his government’s ‘tackling crime’ policies when parliament returns in March.  These policies include the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for various drug and gun crimes and the elimination of the ‘faint hope’ clause.The Conservative government has already passed legislation eliminating ‘2-to-1’ calculations for time served before trial and ended the practice of releasing inmates two-thirds into their sentences.  

All of this means putting more people in jail and keeping them there longer.  While tougher sentencing is always a popular move, these policies will not reduce crime.

The Conservative ‘tough on crime’ agenda apes failed American  policies. Since 2000, several U.S. states have repealed  mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  This is because harsher prison sentences have not reduced crime.

Mandatory minimum sentencing in the U.S. has created an unsustainably expensive prison system, and has put a disproportionate number of Blacks and Hispanics behind bars.

As Canada touts our  financial system as a model for the world, it would seem our government is simultaneously intent on imposing backward criminal laws that other nations have discarded.

It isn’t just the Americans who are re-evaluating their experiences with mandatory minimums.

"While a number of countries have passed mandatory sentencing legislation within the last decade, there is evidence that jurisdictions with the most severe mandatory sentencing laws are beginning to repeal, or consider repealing, the most punitive sentences of imprisonment.” writes Julian V. Roberts in Mandatory Sentences of Imprisonment in Common Law Jurisdictions: Some Representative Models, a 2005 study done for the Canadian Department of Justice.

We already have mandatory minimum sentences of four years in jail on the books for several gun offences in this country.  They were brought in by the Liberals as part of the Firearms Act in 1995.  

The rate of gun murders increased 24 per cent since 2002, according to the October 2009 issue of Juristat (Statistics Canada’s justice stats periodical). This rise in gun murders happened in spite of mandatory minimums already being in place.  Piling more of the same onto policies that have failed can’t be expected to work.
Mandatory minimum sentences will only achieve one thing: massive cost increases as more people are shoveled into the prison system.

In 2006, it cost the government $260 per day for every inmate in federal penitentiaries , according to the June 2008 issue of Juristat. That makes $94,900 dollars per year, to hold one  inmate.  Total spending on adult prisons in 2006 was close to $3 billion.

Now, the Conservatives pride   themselves on fiscal responsibility. Dropping just under 95 grand a year for every extra inmate they fling into our already over-crowded prisons doesn’t seem all that prudent, given Canadians can expect little-to-no decrease in crime for their investment.  

Tacking one extra year onto a federal prison sentence costs the government 10 times what it lends to a post secondary student over the same period of time.  This is a high price for taxpayers to shell out for the government to appear ‘tough on crime’ to voters.

Surely the government must have some inkling of the problems that mandatory minimums have wrought in the United States.  They can obviously access Statistics Canada and Justice Department studies that all indicate these policies don’t live up to sane cost-benefit analysis.

More prison time for offenders is about politics, not sound policy.  

The federal government is buying votes with taxpayer dollars.  Mandatory minimum sentences may be popular, but they represent little more than pandering to the base instincts of the howling mob by demanding revenge on criminals rather then directing resources to lowering crime.