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December 1, 2007 - Toronto Star (CN ON)

O Cannabis! War On Drugs Seen As Flawed Echo Of U.S.

By Betsy Powell, and Jim Rankin

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

As far as ideas go, the verdict on new Tory anti-crime measures unrolled over the past couple of weeks -- from people who make a living studying such things -- has been unanimous.

Bad idea.

So, why is it then that the proposal to implement measures that have demonstrably failed to reduce crime and flooded an already overcrowded prison system have such traction? Politics, pure and simple.

Politicians of all stripes want to be seen as being "tough on crime," says Greg Rogers, executive director of the John Howard Society of Toronto. One of the most popular ways to demonstrate that a political party is serious about cracking down on crime is to propose mandatory minimum sentences, a make-the-criminals pay approach that the Conservatives promised and have introduced.

U.S. politicians started along that path in the mid-'70s knowing full well "there was little they could do about the 'root causes' of crime, especially in the short run," American university professors Alfred Blumstein and Alex R. Piquero wrote in a just-released paper.

Chris Jones, executive director of Ottawa-based John Howard Society of Canada, understands why voters like the idea.

"Cracking down on crime makes people feel good. It appeals to the punitive impulse. The fact that it doesn't do good doesn't come out until years later when the auditor general says, 'Well, here's what you got for your money -- basically, nothing.'"

Yet the approach is now widely discredited south of the border where 2.2 million people are behind bars, making the U.S. the world leader in imprisonment -- at a cost of $60 billion a year. And while the crime rate has come down, there's little evidence to suggest it relates to greater rates of incarceration.

" (A) look at data about crime and imprisonment will show that prison populations continued to swell long after crime rates declined and stayed low," says a new report called Unlocking America. In Canada, where crime rates have also fallen steadily, the prison population has remained steady over the last few decades, research shows.

Unlocking America, written by criminologists for the Washington-based JFA Institute, calls on U.S. lawmakers to dramatically shift gears, shorten sentences and redirect money pouring into the for-profit corrections industry into crime-control strategies that work.

The reasons are persuasive and plentiful.

The "imprisonment binge," has created an "American apartheid" that has put 8 per cent of U.S. black men of working age behind bars. Despite the fact American courts mete out sentences that are double that of British and three times that of Canadian courts, the U.S. violent crime rate is higher.

And now the Conservatives are moving to push Canada to adopt a system that costs more and works less effectively. "This is a prison-building strategy," says the John Howard Society's Jones.

A report prepared by the agency that oversees federal prisons and obtained by the Star earlier this year concluded the Conservatives' law-and-order agenda will lead to dramatic increases in the prison population.

The analysis also found that minimum sentences don't have a deterrent effect and drain away funds available for social programs that prevent crime. It even noted that the U.S. is moving away from mandatory minimum sentences and embarking on reforms to improve parole to ease crowding and reduce incarceration rates.

"It's the American model and, ironically, it's at the same time the Americans who are trying to extricate themselves from mandatory minimum sentences," Jones said in a recent interview. "There's no other jurisdiction that I know of anywhere in the world that is rushing to embrace mandatory minimum sentences."

Part of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's message when he tabled the legislation to stiffen sentences for drug dealing was to emphasize that the government is targeting "serious" drug crimes and criminals out of concern about young people using drugs.

But Rogers says the proposed law will do nothing to slow the drug trade in Canada's largest city. "Once you put someone in jail, someone else takes their place. It's as simple as that."

Ottawa lawyer and drug policy expert Eugene Oscapella says he has no doubt the changes will cause the rate of imprisonment to soar and require the building of new prisons.

And his reading of the law suggests huge numbers of drug-addicted and non-violent people could be sent to prison. About 20,000 people are arrested annually on marijuana-related charges, according to Statistics Canada.

"If a person is found guilty of producing between one to 200 marijuana plants, they would face a mandatory minimum of six months in prison if the offence is committed for the purpose of trafficking, which can be: 'Hi, want to share a joint with me?'"

Stiffer sentences will make the drug trade more violent, he adds, because it will drive up prices and profits and dissuade some of the non-violent "ma-and-pa type producers to get out of the business."

What most want, says Barry MacKnight, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, is a balanced approach.

"Although tackling the root causes of crime must always be a priority, it cannot be achieved by diverting all funding from enforcement activities," MacKnight, who is chief of police in Fredericton, responded in email when asked for the CACP's position on mandatory minimum sentences.

"And although there are cases where jail is clearly not the answer, there are those for whom jail is a necessary and effective deterrent."

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