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March 3, 2008 - Vancouver Sun (CN BC)

Column: Sentencing Law Will Only Increase Prison Population

Imposing Mandatory Sentences on Judges Has Not Worked in the U.S., Where One of Every 100 Citizens Is Behind Bars

By Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The Supreme Court of Canada has endorsed the government's authority to impose mandatory sentencing on judges -- but why?

There is a growing and dangerous belief that imprisoning offenders is the answer to our social problems, that we need to stiffen the spine of weak-kneed judges by taking decision-making from their hands.

To this end, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his conservative administration are pushing hard for so-called tough-on-crime laws that impose more mandatory jail sentences and bind the hands of judges.

The result is easy to predict -- a huge increase in our prison population.

Why are we going down this road, especially when ongoing research indicates that this approach doesn't reduce crime or improve our community? These laws aren't tough on crime rates, they're tough on taxpayers.

Want proof? Look south.

Figures released last week show America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world -- one out of every 100 U.S. citizens is behind bars.

Forget about Iran. Forget about the former Soviet Union. Forget Cuba.

Forget even China and that perennial global pariah, North Korea. Even the world's worst dictators don't imprison their own people at the same rate the U.S. does.

In America today, more than 2.3 million adults are caged. China has 1.5 million imprisoned and Russia has only 890,000 locked up.

What's wrong with this picture? Why are so many Americans considered too dangerous to be free?

In truth, most could be managed in the community and it is a complete waste of their lives and tax money to keep them imprisoned. Many are incarcerated simply because they are poor and addicted.

Criminal justice researchers say the prison population in the Land of the Free has risen eightfold since 1970.


In the last 20 years alone, the American prison population tripled.

Since 1972, the U.S. has been waging a War on Drugs and more than anything else, that policy accounts for the massive increase.

Americans spend $44 BILLION a year on corrections -- six times more than they do on higher education.

It's so bad, cash-strapped states can't afford to improve the education system because they've got to build prisons.

Egads! And we're going to follow in their footsteps?


Of course, some people must be imprisoned. They are dysfunctional; they are dangerous. But they also are a minority.

By and large, the number of people we jail is not a reflection of how many bad people there are, it's a reflection of policy choices. Introduce mandatory minimums, drive up prison numbers.

But don't think you are making it better for taxpayers.

The number of people incarcerated in the U.S. bears little relationship to the crime rate or public safety.

If you send people to jail because they are addicted, you are not punishing lawbreaking, you're punishing people with a health problem. The situation in America reflects that.

National lawmakers in Washington, D.C. turned people into criminals because of bad habits, not because of anti-social behaviour.

They drove up the prison population by imposing mandatory sentences on victimless crimes. The three-strikes-you're-out laws are veritably medieval and have aggravated the mandatory sentencing problem by again removing discretion from the judiciary.

That's what Harper would do here. We are headed in the same direction. Why?

Imprisonment does not make the world a better place and it is an incredibly expensive policy. I understand that it feels good when we whack an offender and make him or her hurt as much as the victim. But that should not be the goal of the criminal law.

The law should strike a balance between punishment and rehabilitation - -- a balance that assuages the victim's pain but at the same time provides the offender with an opportunity to reclaim his or her place in civilized society. Mandatory sentencing robs judges of their ability to balance those needs. It may be constitutional, but it's bad law.

Imprisonment should be a last resort, not the norm or a default decision. It does not make the world a better or a safer place.

Vengeance may be a popular and a feel-good emotion, but it is far too expensive in terms of dollars and sense.

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