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Canada latches on to mandatory minimums

While the US rethinks mandatory minimum sentences, Canadian politicians move to impose them.

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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