Canada: Misguidedness of Harper’s Tough-On-Crime Law Revealed

Canadian prison inmates suffer punishment on account of severe incarceration conditions, in addition to time away from society. This basic finding is among those that drew the harshest criticism in a recent annual report on Canada’s federal prison system.

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers. Source: CBC.

The correctional investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, released his annual report last week, and his findings speak volumes of the problems that continue to plague the federal system. The report can also accurately double as a declaration that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s signature Tough-On-Crime law is unjust and misguided.

With the law enacting harsher penalties and mandatory minimum sentencing, it has created a backwards system where Canadian prison populations are at an all-time high, conditions are worsening, prisoner rehabilitation is minimal, and government spending has seen a 40 percent increase — all at a time when crime in Canada is at its lowest point since 1972.

The Numbers

The 15,000 Canadians currently incarcerated is the most in the history of the nation. It is also a 25 percent increase from the 12,000 that were in prison just a decade ago.

What is most significant, though, is who is being imprisoned. Sapers’s report rightly had a special focus on the increased rate of visible minorities who are occupying cells. The report notes those numbers have increased 75 percent in the past decade, while the number of Caucasian inmates has actually declined. Diving past the surface, the statistics reveal that minorities in federal prisons in Canada are grossly overrepresented.

On any given day, Sapers points out that 40 percent of Canada’s inmates come from non-white communities. Of those inmates, almost 10 percent are black (an 80 percent increase in the past decade) and an astounding 23 percent come from the country’s aboriginal population. With the overall black population in Canada hovering around only 3 percent, and aboriginals 4.3 percent, these numbers are telling.

10 year offender population trends. Source: Government of Canada

Given the disproportionality in the statistics one doesn’t have an option but to deduce that something is systematically wrong. Sapers sharply attacked the justness of the system in a speech last week, stating “You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these.”

Which brings us to the real value of his report: that Harper’s Tough-On-Crime bill is misguided and outdated.

The Bill

The bill itself, an election promise from the Conservative government’s 2011 campaign, guarantees to do exactly as its name suggests. And to that end, what has occurred is exactly what many who originally opposed the bill expected to happen when it was eventually passed last year: increased prison populations, increased spending, and cities being no safer than before.

The centerpiece of the bill — and primary reason for the inflated prison numbers — is its enactment of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. A lot of the bill’s details can be seen here, but the primary targets of its minimum sentencing are drug, gun, and sex crimes against minors.

The problem with mandatory minimum sentencing is that it also comes with unjust sentencing; two separate offenses can easily lack proportionality. On November 12, the Ontario Court of Appeals agreed with this stance when it ruled the bill to be unconstitutional: that mandatory minimum sentences contravene Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights, which establishes the right not to be subjected to cruel or unusual treatment or punishment.

After the OCA ruling, this recent report is merely the latest blow to a bill that is now one of the few unstable legs the prime minister can stand on. With his tenure marred with a poor economy and misconduct in the Canadian Senate, he won’t backtrack on this one.

But he should.

A photo of a double-bunked cell in a medium security institution in the Ontario region. Source: The Government of Canada
A photo of a double-bunked cell in a medium security institution in the Ontario region. Source: The Government of Canada

The bill loses sight of what a prison system is supposed to represent: punishment for an offense and proper rehabilitation for reentry into society. With prison conditions worsening due to overcrowding, there is noticeably increased violence as the result of double bunking. Heavy discrimination against the high minority population and threats against guards are also on the rise, meaning those basic objectives aren’t properly being met — equaling a very small return on the CAN$2.6 billion it costs to run Canada’s federal correction system.

Nor can Canada simply incarcerate or prosecute its way to being a safer nation. Incarceration, as the current crime versus prisoners statistics show, are not linked. As Sapers aptly states, “If there was a relationship between public safety and incarcerations, then the downtown of the big American cities would be the safest environments in the world; they’re not.”

The great irony of the bill is of course that its origin was as an olive branch to align policies with the United States. Harper started insisting on the TOC, dating right back to when he first assumed office in 2006. But now that it’s finally passed, he’s left in the uncomfortable position of dealing with a different United States than what the bill was intended for.

The Tough-On-Crime bill represents a George Bush-run United States, not one of Barack Obama. While the United States remains the nation that incarcerates more of its people than any country in the world, their stance is softening — even among Republican stalwarts. Most noticeably, the country is in the beginning stages of deescalating its war on drugs and shelving mandatory minimum sentencing. US Attorney General Eric Holder officially accented that position in a speech last week.

In a time when the Harper government should also soften stances, it continues to defend the bill. That kind of rhetoric plays well in the ears of conservative Canadians who are not imprisoned. But for those that are, they know the system doesn’t help them like it should.

The title line of Sapers’s report includes this quote from Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” This year’s report, more than ever, shows the unjustness of the system and the bill that’s accentuating it.

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