New Laws Will Have Little Impact On Gangs

Drug war protesters outside Stephen Harper’s roundtable discussion on gang violence in Vancouver. (Photo by Dave Douglas)Premier Gordon Campbell has packed away his Dirty Harry rhetoric, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s police photo ops are over, the cabinet boys are back from their whirlwind tour of Ottawa and the gang violence continues unabated. What did you expect? Nothing announced by the federal government last week will have an impact on the current urban gang problem. Sorry. But true.

And I’m skeptical the newly appointed “public-security commissioner” to lead the province’s fight against gangs will help.

David Morhart, who has been B.C.’s deputy solicitor-general since 2005, doesn’t fill me with confidence given the government’s record — an abysmal Lower Mainland policing arrangement and out-of-control gang violence.

The federally promised murder statute changes are nothing more than legislative legerdemain — gang killings always have drawn first-degree murder charges.

They get plea-bargained away in many cases — and that’s exactly what will continue to happen.

The new offence of drive-by shootings carrying a minimum four-year prison term, with the possibility of up to 14 years behind bars, is similarly a headline grabber that will have little effect.

Right now, they can hit gangbangers caught doing drive-bys with charges that draw similar time. The bad guys don’t care because they rarely (read: never) get caught.

As for the mandatory sentences for drug-related offences — the U.S. tried that approach and is abandoning it.

The Tory anti-drug crime bill, for instance, includes a maximum of 14 years in jail for growing cannabis and a two-year mandatory prison term for cultivating more than 500 plants.

Those penalties are way out of step with the threat the substance poses.

These measures won’t help; they’ll simply increase the price of pot by driving up the risk premium producers charge.

As everyone keeps saying, end the prohibition against cannabis and you’ll take away the bulk of the money that keeps gangs operating, you’d raise millions in taxes and you could improve health care and more effectively fight juvenile use of the drug.

Meanwhile, Attorney-General Wally Oppal and Solicitor-General John van Dongen returned empty-handed from Ottawa professing disappointment.

It could have been foreseen.

They were looking for Criminal Code amendments to make it easier for police to breach our constitutional right to go about life free of state monitoring.

There are good reasons for updating the wiretap law adopted in the 1970s to apply to 21st-century technology. And it is a measure that would certainly help combat gangs.

But those changes must be carefully thought through and the balancing of rights carefully weighed. The feds realistically can’t move quickly on that.

Sadly, the truth of the matter is we can’t bust these gangs without wiretaps, informers and undercover cops infiltrating them at grave risk.

That kind of insidious but necessary policing unfortunately is also expensive.

For the state to engage in these operations requires time, resources, loyalty and long-term commitments. We don’t have that in the current policing system in the Lower Mainland.

The other items Oppal and van Dongen were looking for — changes to disclosure requirements (to speed up trials) and an end to two-for-one credit for time served — were completely wishful thinking.

The Supreme Court of Canada is the author of the current demands on the Crown to show its hand in criminal cases.

Disclosure requirements are based primarily on fundamental constitutional rights as the court sees them (not something Parliament can easily mess with) and that is not going to change anytime soon.

Neither is the two-for-one credit for time served, which is dictated by the provincial court of appeal.

The reason the court has told judges to use that as the norm is the B.C. jail system is overcrowded and prisoners in remand receive rougher treatment than those serving their sentence.

It’s an issue of fairness and what’s right, nothing else.

Regardless, neither of these issues is an impediment to charging and prosecuting gangs.

That’s what was wrong last week with all the political events around gang issues: They so missed the point: We want charges laid for blatant cold-blooded crimes, not excuses and promises of new laws.

We’ve heard it all before.

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– Article from The Vancouver Sun on March 02, 2009.