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Omnibus crime bill an injustice

This fall the Harper government will pass an omnibus crime bill that will imprison thousands more Canadians and cost billions of dollars. It will not do as advertised by the Conservatives and drive the crime rate down. It will simply incarcerate for longer the many citizens who fall afoul of the new laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

The perverse results of some of the new legislation are already being documented. While the Harper government sells its new laws by saying they will punish violent, repeat offenders, it is clear that many non-violent, first-time offenders will bear the brunt of the legislation.

The most recent example is Bill C-59. This law repeals Accelerated Parole Review. APR used to be available to first-time, non-violent offenders serving time in federal prisons. It was a way of releasing them at 1/6 of their sentences if they were low-risk for reoffending and a good risk for reintegration into society. Now all of these offenders will have to undertake the full parole process, backing up the system, overcrowding prison cells, and ultimately making it impossible for most of these offenders to be released even at 1/3 of their sentence.

C-59 was an opportunistic and popular move by the Harper government to respond to the public, who were outraged that Earl Jones (the Ponzi fraudster) might qualify for release at 1/6 of his sentence. The victims of Mr. Jones' frauds were vocal and influential, and Bill C-59 was the result.

Like much of Mr. Harper's crime legislation, the law applies willy-nilly to many other offenders who should properly be released sooner rather than later. Thus we learn that, perversely, non-violent first-time women offenders have been the most affected by this law.

A year ago, there were about 500 women in the federal prison system. Now there are almost 600. That is an increase of 20 per cent in one year. It costs $556 per day to keep a woman behind federal bars. Overcrowding results in the spread of disease, the heightening of tension, more violence, less access to programming and visiting rights. It is an extremely destructive method of accommodating prisoners.

The Harper government has drafted a large number of laws which will result in the same anomalous endgame, and no one is asking any questions. When Mr. Nicholson insists that his drug law is targeted at organized crime members selling drugs to children in the school yard, he is misrepresenting his own legislation. His drug law will capture large numbers of small players and people who have nothing to do with organized crime. They will be your young neighbours growing a few plants in the basement for sharing at a grad party. They will be people in pain who need marijuana for treatment purposes. They will most certainly not be vicious gang members, using guns to defend their turf.

It can be predicted with confidence that the omnibus bill will result in billions of dollars spent for no good purpose, a rising rate of violence and sickness in prisons, and a negative rather than a positive effect upon public safety.

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.

This post first appeared on Behind the Numbers.

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