OTTAWA – The Harper government is embracing tough-on-crime policies even as the United States backs away from similar approaches that have produced record levels of incarceration, huge taxpayer costs and racialized prisons, says an American expert on sentencing policy. “We’ve had this get-tough movement for three decades now,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which promotes reforms in sentencing law and alternatives to incarceration. “If that’s the best way to produce safety, we should be the safest country in the world, and clearly that’s not the case.”
Mauer’s observations are relevant because the federal Tackling Violent Crime Act, which received royal assent on Feb. 28, echoes the punitive approach to crime adopted in the United States in the 1980s. Among other things, it increases mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and impaired driving and requires those convicted of three serious sexual or violent offences to prove why they should not be jailed indefinitely. The Harper government pushed the bill through even though crime rates in Canada have been falling steadily since the early ’90s and are now at their lowest level in 25 years.
In the United States, three-strike laws and widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in a record 2.3 million people behind bars – 700,000 more than China, which has four times the population. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and now constitute 900,000 of all U.S. inmates. A black male born today has a one-in-three chance of doing time in his lifetime. Hispanics males face a one-in-six chance of doing jail time.
The war on drugs has helped fuel the incarceration boom in the U.S. In 1980, just prior to the inception of the drug war, about 40,000 people were locked up for drug offences. At the time, there were fewer than 500,000 people in American prisons or jails for all crimes. Today, there are half a million people imprisoned for drug offences alone in the U.S., many of them low-level offenders serving mandatory five or 10-year terms.
The U.S. approach has not reduced recidivism by ex-convicts. Two-thirds are re-arrested with three years of being released from prison, Mauer says, and half are back in prison. All of this is causing U.S. policy-makers to re-evaluate their approach to crime, he says. While tough-on-crime policies are still very much in force, “there’s begun to be a shift in the political climate and the nature of the discussion about crime policy.” One marker of this emerging view is the Second Chance Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in April. The act, endorsed by liberal and conservative legislators alike, authorizes $362 million in spending to expand programs for inmates, those returning to the community after incarceration and children with parents in jail or prison.
More generally, Mauer says confidence is waning that large-scale incarceration, particularly for drug offences, is effective. “I think there’s a growing recognition that putting somebody who’s got a drug problem in prison for five years without treatment doesn’t do anybody any good.” Concern is also mounting about the racial imbalance in U.S. jails and prisons, Mauer says — in particular the impact on black families and communities. “A million and a half children now have a parent who’s locked up in prison on any given day,” he says. “In black communities, one out of every 14 children has a parent behind bars.” The impact of that on children is enormous, he says, both in terms of the loss of financial and emotional support and the shame and stigma associated with having a parent in prison.
The sheer cost of incarceration is also driving a reassessment of current policies, Mauer says, particularly at the state level, where budgets are tighter and most states are obliged to balance their budgets. “Increasingly, governors and legislators are looking at ways to cut the costs,” he says. “Essentially it’s become a question of where do we want to be going over the course of the next generation. Do we want to be building prisons or creating opportunities for education for our children?”
– Article from the Ottawa Citizen, Sunday May 4th 2008