Six people trekked to Ottawa a couple of weeks ago to testify before Parliament’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which is considering something called Bill C-15.
If that bill becomes law, it will establish mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offences. I know, I know. We’ve been there before. But, as Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen has said, if you want me to stop grinding crime and drug issues to dust you have to ask your elected representatives to stop acting stupid. That’s a strong word, but it’s long past time to be genteel and respectful.
On every aspect of crime and penal policy, this government is programmed for idiocy. Evidence is irrelevant. If it’s a step in the right ideological direction, one bound to resonate with that segment of the population that fears for its safety at every turn, it’s the policy to follow.
That the fearful have been conditioned by those same politicians to be that way, against all available evidence, makes no difference. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, testifying before the Committee, was asked what evidence he had that mandatory minimums would have any impact on drug trafficking. He said: “We believe that that’s what Canadians want.” Most Canadians probably want free maple syrup, a Stanley Cup champ or a couple of weeks in the Caribbean in February. I’m all for laws mandating those. So much for evidence.
The six witnesses came from New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Victoria. They all delivered, from varying viewpoints, the same evidence-based message: That mandatory minimums don’t deter crime — especially when applied to drug offences; that they will inevitably capture the (usually addicted) street seller or his immediate supplier, leaving the big fish to swim away smiling; that they are a political public relations sleight-of-hand designed to show toughness on crime; and that they were popular for a while in the United States, where they failed to produce any results but had many unforeseen negative consequences and where everyone is now scrambling to abandon them.
What was interesting about the committee was the entrenched posture of all members. The hearings seem to be as much a show as a serious gathering of information — an opportunity to consult but, in the process, to get their own views on the record.
The members from the Reform/Alliance — this government bears as much resemblance to the historical Conservatives of Canadian politics as the equally abysmal Bush gang did to the Republican Party — were, as expected, not very receptive to the message being delivered.
One tried a personal attack on one witness, which backfired, to the satisfaction of the witnesses and to the committee member’s embarrassment.
The Bloc Quebecois is adamantly opposed to the bill. Its members were full of praise for the witnesses and lobbed easy questions that invited expansion on what had already been said about the uselessness and potential harm of the bill.
Most interesting were the Liberals on the committee, who have apparently decided that they will support the bill so they can appear to be as tough on crime as the calculating cynics across the aisle. They know all of the downsides of mandatory minimums; but they plan to salve their collective conscience by concentrating on the final section of the bill, which says that, if someone looking at a minimum of one to three years in jail successfully completes a program through a drug treatment court, the court doesn’t have to impose the minimum. Somehow, for the Liberals, that makes the rest of this draconian law OK.
Following one presentation dealing with the potential negative impacts of the bill on the courts — like ceding the sentencing function to prosecutors (who will decide what sentence to impose when they decide what charge to lay), or the certain demise of guilty pleas, the grease that keeps criminal courts running everywhere — Dominic LeBlanc, he who would be leader, delivered a statement about having recently visited Vancouver and spent time with the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court, who was proud of the Vancouver Drug Treatment and Community courts (our own Ujjal Dosanjh, also on the Committee, was strangely silent). LeBlanc then asked the witness what he thought of drug treatment courts. Mistakenly associating them with the old drug courts that were functioning when he retired, the witness replied that they were necessarily invented by the judiciary to solve a caseload problem, the clogging of some courts by the recidivism of drug addicts, and had no impact on drug abuse. He was wrong.
The Drug Treatment Court in Vancouver is more than that and deserves better. Bill C-15 will inevitably lead to a surge in the numbers opting for treatment rather than serving a one- or two-year minimum. The result will be overload. A viable avenue of help to some addicts will be swamped into uselessness. More next time.
– Article from The North Shore News on May 20, 2009.