After 35 years of experience with mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, Americans are beginning to abandon this discredited approach. Yet Stephen Harper’s Conservative government now wants to saddle Canadians with these expensive and ineffective laws.
Now before a Commons committee, Bill C-15 would impose a two-year mandatory minimum for dealing drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines in places where young people congregate. It would also impose a six-month jail sentence for growing even a single marijuana plant for the purposes of trafficking, which could include giving a joint to a friend.
These minimum sentences may sound reasonable to most Canadians. Indeed, federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the Commons committee last month that the bill targets “serious drug traffickers, the people who are basically out to destroy our society.”
But the committee also heard ample evidence that the mandatory minimums would have the effect of filling our prisons with petty drug felons (many of them addicts themselves), creating an even greater backlog in our overwhelmed court system and wasting taxpayer dollars that could be used far more effectively in the battle against drug addiction.
In 1973, Americans were told tougher narcotics laws would help put away drug kingpins. Instead, they found themselves paying billions of dollars to house an astronomical increase in non-violent, petty dealers and drug addicts. Now, New York, California, Florida, Michigan (which spends more on prisons than on higher education) and others are busy extricating themselves from these laws and returning sentencing discretion to judges.
When questioned by New Democratic MP Libby Davies at the committee, Nicholson refused to provide two vital pieces of information: What evidence is there that this law will reduce crime? How much will it cost?
Canadians ought to be given these answers. Instead, Nicholson told the committee: “We are absolutely convinced in our consultation with Canadians that this is welcomed.” In other words, the government did a poll on the bill. As Davies rightly noted, “this bill is not about crime; it is about politics.”
Of course, in a minority Parliament, the opposition parties could kill this initiative. But while the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois have voiced strong opposition to Bill C-15, the Liberals have indicated they will support it when it comes back to the Commons for third reading.
Why? Not because they think it is sound policy; they acknowledge in private that it is not. Rather, the Liberals do not want to give the Conservatives an opening to accuse them of being “soft” on crime. This is craven politics at its worst.
Mandatory minimums for drug offences have been proven, over the course of 35 years in the United States, to be an utter failure in reducing crime. Implementing them here makes no sense. Canadians who are concerned about safety in their communities need smart policies that will actually make a difference, not tough posturing that won’t.
– Article from The Toronto Star on May 10. 2009.