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What's wrong with Harper's omnibus crime bill

Prime Minister Harper will be launching his tough-on-crime agenda today. Our criminal justice system is by no means perfect, but the omnibus crime bill will send us back to a 19th century punishment model. Here are some reasons why Canadians need to speak out against this legislation.

The former U.S. drug czar (Asa Hutchinson) has encouraged Canada not to make the same mistakes the U.S. made. The two mistakes he cited were mandatory minimum sentences, and insufficient attention to rehabilitative programs.

1. The cost of the Harper crime agenda will be colossal, and a large part of it (some say most) will be borne by the provinces, who are responsible for implementing whatever the feds pass. So provinces and territories (many of them in elections as we speak) will be expected to pay for additional courts, clerks, prisons, Crown Attorneys, judges, sheriffs, court reporters and so on. And the numbers are high-$5 billion over 5 years for the one piece of legislation which was examined by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The new drug sentences alone will increase numbers of offenders by a huge amount. The Corrections department is one of the few which is receiving huge increases in its budget as we speak.

2. Virtually all of the crime legislation is directed towards increasing punishment by way of more prison terms for more people and for longer. Virtually nothing in any of the legislation does anything to prevent crime (as the Conservatives claim), help victims (as they claim) or target guns, gangs, drugs and organized crime (as they claim). The Harper government's stated objectives will not be met by the omnibus crime bill.

3. Other jurisdictions, notably the United States, have rejected the Harper approach. Newt Gingrich is fronting a group called Right on Crime which advocates for less incarceration. Ronald Reagan presided over a huge reduction in incarceration when he was governor of California. Maggie Thatcher refused to allow incarceration rates to rise in Britain. Many states are abolishing mandatory minimum sentences and reducing the proportion of sentences which must be served before release.

4. Canada is moving in the wrong direction, and the results will not be pretty. I predict there will be expanding deficits at all levels, an increase in misery for all parties, including offenders' families and communities, and victims (who in fact advocate for improvements in preventive and rehabilitative programs). The picture becomes darker when you consider that up to 80 to 90 per cent of offenders in some institutions are addicts (mostly to alcohol), and up to 40 per cent have mental illnesses. A huge proportion are Aborignal people. Many offenders are homeless, illiterate, victims of sexual abuse, and so on. What is significant is that we have the means to deal with all of these conditions-we know how, and the resources required would be a fraction of the budget necessary to incarcerate so many new inmates. Dealing with these issues would not only reduce crime but would also make for a healthier community. Because the Conservatives are so concentrated on the punishment model, there will be no resources (and no inclination) to fund the programs necessary to deal with these fundamental problems.

5. Journalists continually state that the omnibus crime bill is considered necessary by the Harper government because the crime legislation was otherwise "unpassable" or because of "obstructive measures" taken by the opposition. This is demonstrably not true. The opposition never got a chance to oppose most of the crime legislation because it never came to a vote: most of the laws died on the order paper when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament twice and when he called the 2008 election. Most of the rest of them were never brought forward in a timely manner.

The Conservatives have the majority they need to pass this legislation. The only thing that might give them pause would be a public groundswell against the law. If for no other reason than financial, we should be making our voices heard.

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 and Lorimer Publishing will be releasing her book on the tough-on-crime agenda this fall.

This article first appeared on Behind the Numbers.

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