Stephen Harper’s government has pledged to implement more severe criminal sentences — including for drug crimes — and a more Spartan regime in the country’s correctional institutions. In light of his recent election to a majority government, a re-examination of policy in this area is more urgent than ever.
All citizens want their communities to be safe from the harm caused by illegal drugs. One well-evaluated strategy, which has been widely employed in the United States, has been to enact tough laws creating mandatory minimum prison terms for drug-law offenders. The thinking goes that, through the enactment of guaranteed prison terms for those who would threaten communities by getting involved in the drug trade, we create a disincentive that will prevent people from getting into drugs in the first place. Drugs will become less available and drug use less prevalent, and organized crime will diminish.
Here in Canada, this thinking is the basis for proposed federal mandatory minimum sentencing legislation. Unfortunately, like archaic cultures that clung to the belief that the Earth was flat, those who support mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are willfully ignorant of the near universal consensus that mandatory minimum sentences are both extremely costly and ineffective.
They also implicitly subscribe to the demagogic fallacy that judges are soft and permissive, and that the judicial function should be wrenched out of their hands and replaced by a legislative, one-size-fits-all strait-jacket, because senators and MPs know better about how many years a particular defendant should stay in jail.
While mandatory minimums and “tough on crime” approaches have traditionally received strong support from U.S. conservatives, the serious negative consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing legislation is now increasingly recognized. In a recent Washington Post editorial titled “Saving Money, Saving Lives,” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives (and recently announced presidential candidate), and former Republican leader of the California State Assembly Pat Nolan announced their endorsement, along with other prominent U.S. conservatives, of the “Right on Crime” Campaign — a national movement aimed at reducing the nation’s bloated prison system.
The United States has 6 to 12 times as many incarcerated people — on a per capita basis — as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. The proposed policy would help address the situation. “We urge conservative legislators to lead the way in addressing an issue often considered off-limits to reform: prisons,” the Right on Crime proponents have written. “Several states have recently shown that they can save on costs without compromising public safety by intelligently reducing their prison populations.”
Other prominent U.S. conservatives also have joined the debate. Reverend Pat Robertson, a prominent figure in U.S. Christian conservative politics, highlighted the failure of tough drug laws in a December edition of his television show The 700 Club, stating: “Lock ’em up, you know. That’s the way these guys ran, and they got elected. But that wasn’t the answer.” He went on to state: “It’s costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people.”
In addition to their extreme cost, mandatory sentences also have failed to reduce drug availability. Despite the United States spending an estimated $2.5-trillion on the “War on Drugs” in the last 40 years — and currently spending nearly $100-billion on corrections annually — drug-use surveillance systems funded by the National Institutes of Health have concluded that over the last 30 years marijuana has remained “universally available to American 12th graders,” with greater than 80-90% saying the drug is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain.
In terms of reducing use, a recent World Health Organization study demonstrated that tough drug laws do not translate into stemming drug use. On the contrary, despite the strict mandatory minimum-sentencing regimes that exist in many states, the United States has among the highest lifetime rates of drug use. For instance, the 16% lifetime rate of cocaine use is approximately four or more times that of any of the other countries surveyed, including various European nations, as well as Colombia and Mexico. Minimum sentences drag in mainly small fry dealers from black and Hispanic ghettoes, who are easily replaced, while largely ignoring middle- and upper-class drug users, and aggravate civil war in Mexico and Colombia by demanding the erosion of supply rather than engineering a reduction in demand. In this regard, incarceration is much less effective and far more expensive than treatment.
Heavy sentences for marijuana offenses are especially absurd and unjust, given that 42% of Americans have been or are users and marijuana is the greatest cash crop in California. The U.S. government is only one step away from the regime in the unlamented satellite state of East Germany that declared in 1948 that it had “lost confidence in the people.”
Conservative support for tough drug laws is paradoxical, given that the failure of mandatory minimum sentencing schemes is explained by the free-market economic principles that many conservatives hold dear — particularly the simple law of supply and demand. This principle requires that effectively cutting drug supply by taking a drug dealer off the street will have the perverse effect of making it that much more profitable for new players to get into the market.
Furthermore, the argument that locking up more drug dealers improves community safety is flatly untrue. Research clearly demonstrates that gun violence is a common and natural result of many a successful drug bust, and often occurs when remaining gangs fight over the new economic opportunity that police have unwittingly created. California is an excellent example of this sad reality. The state now has a prison budget that exceeds expenditures on post-secondary education, and yet the intractable gang violence that is directly linked to the drug trade has only been inflamed by these efforts.
Clearly, we need new approaches to address the drug problem. Writing recently in the Globe and Mail, former federal Conservative party campaign manager Tom Flanagan noted that “Some prominent Canadian conservatives, such as former Fraser Institute president Michael Walker, Conservative MP Scott Reid, legal writer Karen Selick and financial journalist Terence Corcoran, have led the way in decrying drug prohibition, but their position has to become more appreciated within the conservative movement.”
One can only hope that this happens soon. Failed mandatory minimum sentencing legislation is currently being repealed in various U.S. states, including New York, Michigan, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and it will be a sad legacy for Canadian conservatives if we sit quietly and ignore how U.S. society has been remarkably weakened by the same laws our government is now hell-bent on enacting.
Note: I would like to thank readers Myles Anevich, Claude Bourque, Paul Kristensen and Robert Swift, who pointed out that I had under-estimated the restraints imposed by the 2007 revisions to the Elections Act, which require elections in the October of the fourth year of a federal Parliamentary mandate. I had been mistakenly informed that the Senate amendments providing greater flexibility had been adopted. At the end of the new mandate, Stephen Harper will be the sixth longest serving prime minister, not, as I wrote, the fifth, 148 days short of the length of Jean Chrétien’s term. I apologize for the error, and will redouble efforts to ensure that these apologia do not become a weekly confessional.
Evan Wood, MD PhD, is a clinical associate professor of medicine, and director of the Urban Health Initiative, at the University of British Columbia.
– Article from The National Post.