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January 4, 2010 -- World-Spectator (CN SN)

Editorial: Government Moving To American-Style Justice

By Kevin Weedmark

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Canada's crime rate is at a 30-year low, with both the rate and the severity of reported crime falling constantly over that time.

So it seems odd that the federal government would respond by adopting "get tough on crime" policies similar to those in the United States, where the prison population is by far the highest in the world thanks to mandatory sentences and prison terms for minor offences -- one in four prisoners on earth is behind bars in the United States. And yet America still has some of the highest crime rates in the developed world.

Few would argue that America's "get tough on crime" policies have made it safer or reduced the crime rate, as it demonstrably hasn't.

Canada's federal prisons contain only 13,000 inmates, most of whom are in prison for serious crimes.

The United States has 2.6 million people behind bars for crimes as minor as passing a bad cheque or possessing a small amount of drugs. It is the only country in the world that incarcerates people for minor property crimes, and drug offences have swollen the numbers of prisoners. In 1980 there were 40,000 people in American prisons for drug offences. Now there are 500,000.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 751 people in prison for every 100,000 population. As a proportion of adults, about one in 100 adult Americans are in prison. That's about 600 per cent higher than any other developed nation.

And in states where the "get tough on crime" mantra has been taken most seriously, the rate is even higher. It is 1,000 per 100,000 population in Texas, and more than 1,200 per 100,000 in Louisiana.

The American incarceration rate remained fairly stable at 110 people per 100,000 population imprisoned, from the 1920s to 1975. This rate is more or less in line with the rest of the developed world. With the "get tough on crime" movement, there was a huge spike in people in prison, but not much effect on crime rates.

Canada's incarceration rate is currently 110 per 100,000-a fraction of America's, and yet we live in a much safer country.

Has the "get tough on crime" mentality worked in the United States? The violent crime rate in the United States was as low as 160 incidents per 100,000 in the 1960s and remained fairly low through the first half of the 1970s. In 2008 it was 454.5 per 100,000. The American murder rate was 4.6 per 100,000 in 1963. Last year it was 5.4.

In Canada our murder rate is 1.4 per 100,000.

Some of America's prisons are operated by for-profit businesses, which has led to horrific abuses, ranging from prisons refusing medical care to prisoners to boost profits, to a few infamous cases of prison companies paying judges per conviction to help keep the prisons full.

After looking at those basic facts, can anyone see any logic behind the Harper government's moves to try to make Canada's justice system, which has led to a 30-year-low crime rate, more like America's, where the prison system is clearly dysfunctional and crime rates are much higher?

While they haven't trumpeted their anti-crime campaign, one-third of the 63 bills introduced into the House of Commons in the past year have dealt with some aspect of criminal justice.

Groups from the police to prosecutors argue that new legislation intended to get tough with drug users will clog up the justice system and overcrowd prisons. Many of the reforms will put more people in prison for longer terms, and make it more difficult for convicts to earn early release.

One of the reforms is intended to end the common practice of judges of crediting those serving jail terms with two days remission for every day spent in custody while awaiting trial or sentencing. This was introduced when judges recognized that the delay between arrest and trial was confining those accused who could not post bail in remand centres, where conditions are tougher than in prison.

The federal Conservatives apparently feel they know much better than judges or the other professionals who work in the justice system.

At the Senate's hearings into the measure, Canadian criminal lawyers said that ending the credit would transform bail hearings into mini-trials, and would cause lawyers to make their first priority getting clients in custody into court, rather than those out on bail, regardless of the severity of the charges.

The association representing Crown prosecutors even weighed in to ask senators to take a look at how the legislation would affect the entire system, which they said was already well over capacity.

The Senate made amendments based on the recommendations of every side in the justice system, but were bullied by the Harper government into backing down.

All three opposition parties say they oppose the changes, but none want to appear "soft on crime," so their opposition has not been too vocal.

Canada may be moving closer to an American-style justice system whether most people want that or not.

Let's just hope it works better here than there.

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