Monday, October 19, 2009

Following the Wrong Road

The progress of Bill C-25, which will end the so-called 'two for one credit', though Parliament troubles me. Bill C-25 would end the common practice of giving criminals a two-for-one credit for time served in jail before being sentenced. Instead, the bill would have judges give them a straight credit for time served. The political optics of getting 'tough on crime' in this way are sufficiently obvious that they can be passed over without elaboration.

That said the idea that 'criminals need to be in jail' is both simplistic and incorrect. Obviously I am not talking about serial killers or sexual predators here, and my feelings about things like the Karla Homolka case are undoubtedly very close to the of Minister Van Loan. This class of criminal makes up a tiny percentage of the people brought before our courts, however, and as the exceptions are a truly terrible sample on which to base the rule.

Two issues are problematic with this bill: the lack of costing and the absence of discussion or planning for what this means for our correctional system. Apparently the bill has been costed, but the numbers can not be released because of cabinet confidentiality. This is completely unacceptable - the lawmakers of the land are being asked to vote into law a bill that the government doesn't want them to see the numbers for? Not to mention it is difficult to see how cabinet confidentiality applies in this case, as the bill is an open matter before the house and no national security interests are at issue. That being said data from Statistics Canada indicates that the bill will lead to at least a 10 per cent increase in the federal prison population, and costs well over $100-million a year.

The cost is, of course, just a number. In point of fact it isn't, unless the Cabinet knows something that they don't want us to know, a terribly large number either. More important than the dollar number is the increase in the prison population. What this bill completely fails to discuss is what correctional services across the country are supposed to do with these new inmates, or how to reduce the numbers in the future or prevent recidivism among those convicted of crimes.

Moving beyond the problems I have with the particulars, or more accurately the lack of particulars, are the flawed principles that motivate it. What our government is proposing to do, in a smaller and less explicit way, is to follow the path blazed in the United States over the past 20 years. The process of mandatory sentencing and restrictions on options other than prison has led to a situation where there are now 2.3 million people incarcerated and another 5 million or so on parole or probation in the United States. To put his in perspective approximately one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored - an outcome that simply screams failure.

Restricting the Criminal Justice system's options is not actually helpful, as the administration of justice is as complex as the people the system serves. The government has not made a case that the 'two-for-one' practice is a serious flaw in the system. More importantly this bill strikes me as advancing an agenda of unthinking rigidity in the administration of Justice, the failed results of which are visible south of the border.

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