Seeking justice, not jails
Winnipeg Free Press Editorial
Crime is falling in Canada, but anyone who lives in Winnipeg (or most other places, for that matter) knows that statistics do not tell the whole story. There is a crime problem. It is real and it is serious.
The fact that lawlessness has fallen to 1973 levels has caused some observers to proclaim that the war is over, but they are ignoring some important points. First, the 1970s were a high point for crime, fuelled by the rise in illegal drug use and by the large number of baby boomers who were at an age at which most crimes are committed.
The latest Statistics Canada report says more than two million serious crimes were reported to police in 2009, a staggering number that is hardly grounds for complacency.
Nevertheless, the downward trend is encouraging and it should be cause for a slight pause in the Harper government's plans to pass an omnibus bill of crime legislation later this year, the most sweeping shift in the country's legal framework since Confederation. Among other things, the legislative package would eliminate pardons for serious offences, increase the use of mandatory minimum sentences for some offences, increase police powers, toughen anti-terror legislation, end house arrest for some crimes and get tougher on dangerous young offenders.
The new statutes would compel the government to build or renovate prisons across Canada to accommodate new prisoners and longer periods of incarceration at an estimated cost of $2 billion, although the number is still a rough estimate.
It's a lot to digest in one fell swoop, but the Conservative government has decided to use its majorities in the House and the Senate to deal with the issues quickly, rather than get bogged down in separate debates on individual bills.
The same majority that allows it to ram through legislation, however, also gives it the luxury of being able to take more time to get it right.
One bill in the omnibus package would compel judges to impose one- or two-year minimum jail sentences for drug traffickers, depending on the circumstances, while mandatory three-year terms would apply to anyone growing marijuana on third-party property.
These new penalties could see large numbers of young people locked up for an offence that should be decriminalized, a move that would also weaken organized crime and eliminate the bloodthirsty competition and violence that goes with the illegal drug trade.
The pending legal changes would also require judges to consider deterrence and denunciation in sentencing young offenders, instead of relying exclusively on rehabilitation. There are cases of extremely violent young people where protection of the public should be the prime goal of sentencing, but most youth should be sentenced with care, rather than being written off as beyond repair.
Another part of the bill would end the use of house arrest as a penalty for some offences, including drug trafficking, which might be warranted in some cases, but which is guaranteed to fill up cellblocks with people who might not require incarceration.
The problem with the crime debate in Canada (and Manitoba) is it has been overwhelmingly political, with governing parties over-reaching in efforts to show they are tough on crime, while opposition groups blame every sensational crime on the sitting government.
This approach is a disservice to the public, which is entitled to a more thoughtful analysis of a complicated issue.
It is clear, however, that violent crime is a problem, particularly in a city like Winnipeg, with its large underclass of troubled and desperate aboriginals. A decline in criminal offences does not mean the government should not be legislating appropriate penalties to protect the public and discourage future lawbreaking, even if it means building more prisons.
It's equally important, however, that the remedy is just and that it does not make society less safe by jailing large numbers of people whose offences would be better handled in alternative ways.