Canada latches on to mandatory minimums

TORONTO — It surprised no one recently when Prime Minister Stephen Harper traveled to Vancouver to demonstrate yet again that he is “tough on crime.”

The Pacific coast city, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, is in the grips of a murderous gang war over drugs and turf. It was the perfect backdrop for Harper and his ministers to announce a new batch of laws that impose mandatory minimum sentences on crimes from drug possession to drive-by shootings.

Under the proposed changes, judges would have no choice but to impose, for example, a minimum six-month prison sentence for someone caught growing just one marijuana plant, a minimum three-year sentence for producing methamphetamine in a residential area, and a minimum of four years for anyone convicted of a drive-by shooting. Maximum sentences are, of course, far higher.

There’s little doubt the proposals will be passed by Parliament, despite the conservative government’s minority status. Two opposition political parties — the socialist New Democrats and the centrist Liberals — supported an earlier batch of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for gun-related crimes proposed last year. Alone in bucking the trend is the Bloc Quebecois, a party dedicated to breaking up Canada by making the province of Quebec an independent country.

Mainstream Canadian politicians consider the “tough on crime” label a sure vote getter. But while Vancouver’s gang war — and the Harper government’s forceful response — is headline-grabbing stuff, both obscure the fact that Canada’s crime rate has tumbled more than 25 percent during the past 15 years.

A further problem is that mandatory minimum sentencing is a discredited movement that turned the United States into the prison capital of the world. And states in the U.S. are beginning to drop such laws as failed policy at precisely the time Canada is multiplying them.

The latest to do so is New York State. Legislators there announced two weeks ago that they would gut the infamous Rockefeller drug laws that launched the mandatory minimum sentencing craze in the early 1970s. Michigan, which spends more on incarceration than higher education, has also eased its mandatory sentencing laws.

Across the U.S., mandatory sentencing laws resulted in a quadrupling of the inmate population between 1973 and the early 1990s. In 2007, the U.S. had 2.2 million inmates and $40 billion a year in prison costs.

U.S. studies have indicated that the incarceration explosion has done little to reduce crime. The recession further pushed many politicians to question laws that have proved costly and ineffective.

“The experience with mandatory minimums is that it sweeps up a whole lower level of offenders and just a relative handful of higher ones. It’s overkill,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project. “Unless we address the demand for drugs, we’re just recycling people through the prisons.”

Canada’s incarceration rate is seven times lower than the rate in the United States. But some U.S. states are trying to halt the upward spiral. Colorado and Kansas are closing prisons. Other states are making it easier to get parole. Canada, again, is bent on doing the opposite.

Canada spends about $1.6 billion annually to keep 13,200 inmates in 58 federal penitentiaries. Leading criminologists are unanimous in warning that the government’s embrace of mandatory sentencing laws will further swell a crowded prison system already struggling with a shortage of rehabilitation programs and high rates of recidivism.

“The system is struggling to keep its head above water,” Howard Sapers, the government-appointed ombudsman for federal prisoners, said in a recent interview.

The Harper government’s response is to consider building more prisons. It is studying recommendations from a task force it appointed, which called for the construction of mega prison compounds at a cost of $620 million each.

Criminologists have described the Harper prison policies as a reckless waste of money. Better to tackle the root causes of crime by investing in early childhood education, drug rehab, poverty reduction initiatives and outreach programs that target youth at risk, helping them to stay in school or training them for jobs.

Locking more people up isn’t a cost-effective answer. There are signs that the U.S. has learned this lesson, while Canada has not.

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