The Mandatory Minimums Myth

When it comes to mandatory minimum prison sentences, Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is a true believer.

He and his government see them as a valuable weapon in the fight to deter crime. Mr. Nicholson may have a secret cache of studies that bear out this contention, but most criminology research points in the opposite direction.

His opinion also runs counter to the conclusions of a parliamentary committee that Mr. Nicholson served on in 1988. Citing ineffectiveness and prohibitive costs, it recommended against creating new mandatory minimum sentences. What changed for Mr. Nicholson? It is to be hoped that it was not the easy electoral gain that comes from scaring the public into embracing tough-on-crime measures.

Mandatory minimums send a message that society is serious about stamping out crime. But do potential criminals get that message? To date, there is no reliable evidence that the average scofflaw ponders sentencing ranges before he knocks off the local convenience store.

What is known is that mandatory minimum cause prison populations to swell. They also handcuff judges carrying out the exacting task of sentencing offenders for crimes that span a wide spectrum of culpability and context. To impair a judge’s ability to tailor a fitting sentence strikes at the heart of our judicial system.

Moreover, appellate courts exist to correct errors. They can remedy the occasional, intolerably lenient sentence. Removing discretion from sentencing judges in order to curb the excesses of a few makes no sense.

There is no crime wave that would justify such harsh measures. Indeed, crime rates are steadily dropping. It is high time to take a concerted look at the interface between sentencing reform and fiscal responsibility.

First, mandatory minimum sentences ought to apply only to a small number of very serious offences, including some that involve the use of firearms.

A pragmatic prison philosophy is needed, one that stresses the incarceration of serious, repeat offenders, yet relies on alternatives to prison for lesser offenders.

Canada should also join the rest of the Western world by appointing a permanent sentencing commission, to bring order to our chaotic sentencing regime.

Finally, sentencing provisions should come with sound research into the likely social, legal and fiscal implications.

Two leading correctional activists – Craig Jones of the John Howard Society and Kim Pate of the Elizabeth Fry Society – have challenged Mr. Nicholson to provide figures to go with his stream of sentencing proposals.

“Even modest economic assumptions suggest large numbers and many hidden costs,” said Mr. Jones. “By refusing to divulge to Canadians the cost of the crime bills, Parliament is expecting Canadians to cut it a blank cheque.”

In times of financial stress, the country should expect no less.

– Article from The Globe & Mail on February 19, 2010.