The Conservative government is about to take yet another step to the right of their American cousins.
Bill C-10, the ominous Omnibus bill now tumbling down the pipeline is a mish-mash of nine unrelated bills that form the centrepiece of the Conservative fear-based "law and order" agenda.
The American-style bill would increase incarceration rates by adding new and longer sentences for drug-related crimes, increasing mandatory minimums, scrapping alternate sentencing (such as house arrest), and beefing up sentences for young offenders. That would mean building more jails, for which the unwilling provinces would have to pay. If you build it, they will come.
All this to make our communities safer. But would it? Canada is not the U.S. Our crime rate is at its lowest level since 1973, according to Statistics Canada. There is no crime wave sweeping this country. But even if there were, Bill C-10 would be the worst possible response.
In hearings before the Justice Committee, and in a number of open letters and publicly released statements, one expert after another has explained that moving from a rehabilitation and reintegration approach to justice, to a punitive system based on lengthy prison terms will make us less safe, not more.
The Americans have been down that road and their experience is instructive. Even conservative Republicans have been forced to declare their punitive vision of criminal justice, on which C-10 is modelled, an abject failure.
Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the American Justice Policy Institute, sums up the unusually bipartisan American response to C-10:
"Republican governors and state legislators in such states of Texas, South Carolina, and Ohio are repealing mandatory minimum sentences, increasing opportunities for effective community supervision, and funding drug treatment because they know it will improve public safety and reduce taxpayer costs. If passed, C-10 will take Canadian justice policies 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and Canadian citizens will bear the costs."
One Texas study found that every dollar spent on rehabilitation is worth $9.34 in avoided criminal justice costs, and a number of studies in Canada have found that, not surprisingly, locking more people up for longer creates a hardened criminal underclass with no hope of escape, leading to more violent crime.
Eric Gottardi, vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association's national criminal justice section put it bluntly when he explained that:
"We believe the substance of this legislation both to be self-defeating and counterproductive, if the goal is to enhance public safety... It represents a profound shift in orientation from a system that emphasizes public safety ... rehabilitation and reintegration to one that puts vengeance first."
But, as with the long-gun registry, Conservatives have put ideology ahead of experts and facts, even when criticism comes from their Republican cousins. In committee, Conservatives have consistently challenged the credentials of leading experts in criminal justice, and cited phantom unreported crime statistics when trying to justify a repressive and costly reaction to a plummeting crime rate. They've even gone so far as to characterize opponents of the bill as "advocates for criminals" and are attempting to avoid further study of the bill by invoking closure.
Meanwhile our NDP Official Opposition has been doing everything they can to block or at least amend the bill, but it's tough slogging when Conservatives hold the majority on all committees, including Justice, which has been considering C-10.
NDP MP Charmaine Borg sits on the Justice committee and told rabble:
"There's a huge amount of arrogance on the government side. If it's not their idea, it's not a good idea. We've proposed a number of amendments, including friendly attempts to clean up the language in places, but the Conservatives have refused to even discuss them. The unwillingness to compromise when everyone, even victims' rights advocates, is asking for changes is really undemocratic."
On November 16, Borg and four of her opposition colleagues won a small battle after filibustering the Justice Committee for nine straight hours in response to Conservative plans to limit clause by clause study of the bill to a single day. In exchange for ending the filibuster, Conservative committee members agreed not to limit debate on mandatory minimum sentences and have three meetings of the committee which will require unanimous consent to adjourn, in order to ensure a proper discussion of the NDP's proposed amendments.
But despite the NDP's best efforts, the Conservatives have made clear that their ears are closed on the subject of C-10. No amount of evidence, no well-presented summation of the facts will sway their determination to implement a flawed bill that will make our communities less safe, our prisons more dangerous and our society less equal -- all while sticking taxpayers with the exorbitant price tag.
The Opposition has done a valiant job of exposing the dangers of this bill but, in a majority situation, all they can do is raise awareness. Beyond that, it's up to us.
The only thing that will derail this dangerous piece of legislation is public pressure. Conservative MPs have to start feeling a backlash in their constituencies before they'll gain the courage to challenge the party line. In a democracy, voting is only a small part of the equation. Each of us has a duty to be an engaged citizen, and let the government know when their policies are wrong. And this bill is no small amount of wrong.
This is not a left-right issue. From any perspective, C-10 will be a costly and abject failure.
So tell someone how you feel. If you live in a Conservative riding pick up the phone, call your MP, or better yet ask for a meeting. If not then tell a friend, a cousin or a parent, ask them to call their MP. Share this issue on Facebook and Twitter, check out itcouldgetworse.com and leadnow.ca and send a message with their easy form.
Most importantly, do it now. C-10 could become law inside a month. If it does, it will make our country worse. Don’t let it.
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