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Justin Trudeau yet to overhaul Stephen Harper's wasteful 'tough-on-crime' agenda

Image: Flickr/Sara Jo

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The Republican state of Texas told us it was a bad idea.

The newly elected Liberal government has inherited a decade of costly crime legislation and it appears as though interest in reversing these draconian laws is absent.

Implementing the omnibus crime Bill C-10, passed in 2011, was one of the largest pieces of criminal justice legislation ever passed -- in direct opposition to evidence-based policy making, sending the Canadian legislature back to a nineteenth-century punishment model.

Canadian prisons are still becoming overloaded, while unemployment and social assistance lines grow longer with people unable to receive pardons.

Paula Mallea, author of Aboriginal Law: Apartheid in Canada and Fearmonger: Stephen Harper's Tough-on-Crime Agenda, practiced criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston and Manitoba.

Mallea has written extensively about the implications of the tough-on-crime agenda.

Steps have already been taken to alleviate the retrograde measures undertaken by the previous government, she told rabble.ca in an email interview.

"One by one, crime legislation has reached the Supreme Court of Canada and been overturned as contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

The Harper tough-on crime agenda has been a costly and inhumane endeavour which continues to permeate throughout the Canadian justice system.

Prison costs increased by approximately 86 per cent by 2011, the blame of which ultimately came down to the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences.

Mallea explains, bill c-10, among other Conservative crime bills, has led to overcrowding in prisons, a serious backlog in the courts, harsh and dangerous prison conditions, a huge bottleneck and many obstacles for those seeking to obtain "record suspensions' (pardons were scrapped in 2011).

"As a result, according to the prison ombudsman, violence within the prisons is rising," says Mallea.

"As well, countless Canadians who have criminal records are unable to obtain pardons (or 'record suspensions,' as the previous government calls them), and are unable to obtain jobs, travel, and function as ordinary citizens who have paid their dues and now deserve to be fully reintegrated into society."  

"Virtually all of the laws passed during that decade were designed to increase punishment against offenders," says Mallea.

"This included longer sentences, more punishment for offenders while they were serving sentences, less likelihood of obtaining pardons, less likelihood of obtaining a transfer to Canada from a foreign country to serve a sentence, and so on."

The disastrous effects of mandatory minimum sentences are extensively documented, yet many governments continue to choose ideology over evidence.

Statistics Canada shows crime in Canada has been in perpetual decline for the last 20 years. However, this doesn't stop politicians and think-tanks from twisting crime stats to justify building more prisons.

Prime Minister Trudeau welcomed Canada's first Aboriginal federal justice minister to his cabinet this year, but now they both must grapple with the simple fact that the policies they've inherited has more Aboriginal people locked up than ever before.

The omnibus crime bill c-10, similar to the crime bills before it, ignored decades of research. It's expected that a government who claims to abide by evidence-based policy making will take this into account.

"It is to be hoped that under the new government, this piecemeal approach to reversing unconstitutional laws will not have to continue, and that the Liberal government will dismantle the legislation in Parliament.  This would avoid more unnecessary expense and would speed up the process to adopting a more progressive, evidence-based approach to criminal justice."

"This was ostensibly done as a way of helping victims of crime, but those who speak for victims' organizations resisted this legislation, saying they were not vengeful people and wanted to see crime prevention and rehabilitation programs rather than more punishment."

Mallea explains, these measures do not in fact prevent crime or rehabilitate those who have offended. 

"The mentally ill and drug addicted and other disadvantaged prisoners need care and attention within the prison system if they are to return to society capable of carrying on without further offending.  The kind of legislation passed during the last decade militates against this."

A final consequence of the previous government's legislation is that it has cost the taxpayer billions of dollars in the building of prison cells and in increased litigation, as accused persons seek to avoid draconian mandatory minimum sentences, she adds.

Mallea notes, the U.S. is reconsidering its devotion to mandatory minimum sentences, largely because of the financial costs. Accordingly, the U.S. government is moving to amnesty many prisoners who are serving long sentences for non-violent (mainly drug) offences, and to eliminate many of their mandatory minimum sentences.

"It is clear that recent crime legislation has cost Canadians in both human and financial terms," says Mallea.

"A thoughtful approach to criminal justice that would yield better results in terms of public safety and healthier communities would include:  paying attention to preventive programs; providing rehabilitation programs (including extensive drug abuse and mental health programs), including literacy and education programs; and supporting community programs to help those being released from custody."

Mallea says this would include far less reliance upon incarceration as the answer to all of our problems, and would instead put the saved money into communities and the suggested programs. 

"If this is done, it is expected that the crime rate will be reduced further as serious social problems are alleviated," she says.

In her book, Mallea cites "Finding Direction: Expanding Criminal Justice Options by Considering Policies of Other Nations," to show Canadian parliament what other nations are doing. It's a means of creating an atmosphere for evidence-based policy making.

There was a time when the Liberals came out against this kind of crime legislation. However, now that they have taken control of Parliament with a majority government, the evidence suggests, or lack thereof, that they are happy to keep crime legislation the way it is, absorbing the worst of American criminal justice legislation and appropriating it to perpetually decreasing Canadian crime.

Canada's criminal justice system has been criticized by Liberals and Conservatives over the years. It's not only fiscally irresponsible, but largely ignorant and inhumane.

A question from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: What is your Liberal government doing about crime bill c-10? 

Ryan is a freelance journalist, seeking to give the voiceless a voice, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He lives in Toronto. 

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Image: Flickr/Sara Jo

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