On March 2, the Pew Center on the States, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, released a report on the staggering growth of the American correctional system. Entitled One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, the report noted that “sentencing and release laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s put so many more people behind bars that last year the incarcerated population reached 2.3 million and, for the first time, one in 100 adults was in prison or jail.”
It also cited the tremendous increase in the number of people on probation or parole, such that “combined with those in prison and jail, a stunning 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent, is under some form of correctional control.”
Why is this relevant to Canada?
“We only need to go south of the border and see a nation that enacted mandatory minimums related to drug offences from the mid-1980s on,” criminologist Susan Boyd told the Georgia Straight. “It didn’t reduce violence and drug use. So here we are saying, ‘We’re going to do this.’ ”
Boyd—an associate professor at UVic and research fellow at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.—was referring to the reintroduction in Parliament by the Conservative government of a bill that proposes mandatory minimum jail sentences for drug offenders.
If passed into law, Bill C-15 would, among its other provisions, throw people caught with one marijuana plant into the slammer for a minimum of six months. If growing a single plant is done on a property that belongs to another person or in an area where it may present a hazard to children, minimum jail time is nine months.
Worse, the bill seeks to increase the maximum penalty for this particular offence to 14 years.
Vancouver’s so-called Prince of Pot, Marc Emery, who is fighting extradition on charges of selling marijuana seeds to American growers, is a potential U.S. prison statistic.
Emery was handing out leaflets condemning drug prohibition, along with his wife, Jodie, on the south side of the city when the Straight asked him about Bill C-15. “Anything that puts more people in jail for drugs is going to fill prisons,” he said. “It’s a very expensive and failed policy that will only bring us more misery.”
The Pew Center on the States report pointed out that many states in the U.S. “appear to have reached a ‘tipping point’ where additional incarceration will have little if any effect on crime”.
In Washington state, which shares a border with B.C., the report stated, “from 1980 to 2001, the benefit-to-cost ratio for drug offenders plummeted from $9.22 to $0.37.
“That is, for every one dollar invested in new prison beds for drug offenders, state taxpayers get only 37 cents in averted crime,” it noted. “An updated analysis from 2006 found that incarceration of offenders convicted of violent offenses remained a positive net benefit, while property and drug offenders offered negative returns.”
Conservative Abbotsford MP Ed Fast deflected criticism that mandatory jail times haven’t worked in the U.S.
“First of all, on the issue of deterrence there’s contradicting evidence,” Fast told the Straight. “I don’t base my support for the legislation on the deterrent effect. I base it on the prophylactic effect of the legislation. Prophylactic means taking repeat, violent offenders out of our communities for longer periods of time.”
Bill C-15 is a reincarnation of Bill C-26, which the Conservatives introduced in November 2007.
In February 2008, a few months after Bill C-26 was tabled in Parliament, Boyd started sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper a weekly letter in an attempt to educate the Conservative leader about harm reduction and drug regulation.
Boyd did this for a year, and she sent her 52nd and final letter in early February this year. Bill C-15 was introduced on February 27, a day after the Conservatives filed Bill C-14, which toughens penalties for gang-associated violent activities.
As an educator, Boyd has this to say about mentoring Harper: “The prime minister gets a failing grade on drug policy.”
The economics of prisons in Canada
> Total correctional-services expenditures in 2005-06: almost $3 billion
> Share spent on custodial services or prisons: 71 percent
> Associated policing and court costs in 2005-06: more than $10 billion
> Number of correctional facilities in Canada in 2005-06: 192
> Annual cost of incarcerating a federal female prisoner in
2004-05: $150,000 to $250,000
> Annual cost of incarcerating a federal male prisoner in 2004-05: $87,665
> Daily cost of incarcerating a provincial prisoner in 2004-05: $141.78
> Daily cost of alternatives such as probation, bail supervision,
and community supervision: $5 to $25
Will Bill C-15 kill the twin scourge of illegal drugs and gang violence?
Libby Davies NDP MP, Vancouver East:
“There’s a lot of information, both in the United States and in Canada, that shows that mandatory minimum sentencing regimes for drug offences are ineffective. This is all about window-dressing for the Conservatives’ crime agenda. They want to impress people with their tough-on-crime approach. One thing that will happen is that it could very much overcrowd our prisons. We find the bill to be misdirected and based on a very faulty premise. It’s based on the U.S.’s war on drugs, which has been a complete failure.”
Ed Fast Conservative MP, Abbotsford:
“What Bill C-15 does is it’s connecting the sale of drugs to aggravating factors. If there’s a sale or production or growing of drugs that occurs and violence is present, we will put those guys behind bars. But we also want to make sure that low-level dealers that are dealing in drugs simply because they’re addicted can actually get the help that they deserve. We believe it’s a balanced approach. We’re not going after the marijuana users. We’re going after the guys who really present an ongoing danger to our community.”
Ujjal Dosanjh Liberal MP, Vancouver South:
“Bill[s]C-14 and [C-]15? We have said that we’ll support both of them. We agree with tougher penalties for serious and violent and chronic offenders. But that alone isn’t going to do the job. That’s why we believe this government is failing significantly in their drive to deal with the issue of crime. They’re failing Canadians because they’re not emphasizing crime-preventing, they’re not providing resources for youth programs, they’re not providing actual police officers on the ground, [and]they’re not providing prosecutors.”
Adrianne Carr Deputy leader, Green Party of Canada:
“The Green party doesn’t support mandatory sentencing because it has proven to not work. It’s coming from this tough-on-crime perspective. What we’ve seen is that our court system wastes extraordinarily high resources in prosecuting the petty criminals involved in drug cases, particularly marijuana. We should be legalizing marijuana, which has been suggested by the Senate of Canada and the Fraser Institute, and these are hardly radical institutions. What we have to do is delink the profit
motive from drugs.”
– Article from the The Georgia Straight.