Will Canada heed U.S. warnings on mandatory minimum sentences?
Published Sunday, March 24, 2013 1:01PM EDT
Anti-mandatory minimum sentencing advocates are warning Canadians of what they describe as ineffective and costly legislation that has left prisons in the U.S. grossly overcrowded while doing little to increase public safety.
The warning comes as U.S. legislators from both sides of the political divide propose a bill that would allow judges to impose more lenient sentences for federal crimes in a bid to give some relief to the country’s bloated prison system.
“What Canada needs to do is take a look at the American experience,” says Tim Lynch of the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute. “We are turning away from mandatory minimums and Canada would make a big mistake in following in our footsteps.”
Lynch told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday that while keeping a violent criminal incarcerated does keep streets safer, the same is not true with non-violent offenders.
Referring to low-level drug-traffickers who are often incarcerated under minimum sentencing legislation, Lynch said: “There’s no corresponding increase in public safety. For these low-level offenders in the drug trade, they’re immediately replaced, so it doesn’t have any effect on the level of crime.”
Julie Stewart, president of the U.S.-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the judge who handed her brother a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense admitted that he didn’t agree with the ruling.
“At the sentencing he said, ‘My hands are tied,’” Stewart recalled. “It was contrary to everything I understood about American justice. I thought the judge was the one in the end, the neutral party, who would determine what the appropriate sentence was.”
Stewart said she’s hoping the proposed justice act that was introduced by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republican Sen. Rand Paul last week will soon become law.
In a statement, Leahy described mandatory minimums as a “great mistake.”
“I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial,” he said. “It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them. A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer.”
Despite the warnings from south of the border, Canada’s Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is standing by the Conservative’s tough-on-crime legislation.
“We propose maximum sentencing, that’s Parliament’s decision, and in many cases we decide what the minimum sentence would be,” Nicholson said. “That doesn’t take away the right of the judge’s ability to decide guilt or innocence.”
Asked if the circumstances surrounding a crime should factor into the sentencing, Nicholson maintained that the government’s role is “to set the guidelines.”
Nicholson said that mandatory minimums send the “right message” that certain offences carry serious consequences.
He also denied that the Conservative’s tough-on-crime agenda has led to more people behind bars.
He said: “I think that the statistics will show that there aren’t a lot more people put in prisons, but in many cases it’s not the same individual being released and put back in again.”