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"The real crime's the Tories' take on sentencing" by Jeffry Simpson, Globe and Mail

5th May 2006

The international and Canadian evidence is overwhelming against expanding mandatory minimum sentences. Numerous studies confirm it. Judges, prosecutors and academics know it. And yet, against this conclusive evidence, Canada's Conservative government proposes to ramp up their use. Canada already has 29 offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences (MMS). Nineteen were added to the Criminal Code in 1995, as part of a package of changes. Many were for firearms offences.

Now the Conservatives want to add new ones and lengthen existing ones. The reason has everything to do with politics, a political response to a media-inspired whipping up of concern about crime that defies the reality, easily demonstrated, that violent-crime rates across Canada have been going down for most of the past two decades.

The Conservatives, pandering to perception, want to get "tough on crime." So two stalwarts of this approach -- Justice Minister Vic Toews and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day -- unveiled the government's policies yesterday, including the new mandatory minimum sentences for drug and firearms offences.

Where is the evidence to support what they propose? It exists in rhetoric, tabloid columnizing and the police associations. It does not exist in fact. If you doubt it, click on the websites of Mr. Toews's own department in Ottawa, the Rand Corp. or various university departments of criminology to understand what those who have studied MMS, as opposed to playing politics with it, have found.

Prof. Julian Roberts of Oxford University surveyed MMS in a range of countries. He concluded: "The studies that have examined the impact of these laws reported variable effects on prison populations, and no discernible effect on crime rates." Please note: "no discernible effect on crime rates. "

Prof. Thomas Gabor of the University of Ottawa and Nicole Crutcher of Carleton University conducted an exhaustive survey of world studies for the Justice Department in 2002. What counts, they found, in crime prevention is not the length of anticipated sentence but the likelihood of being caught. They wrote: "The research on both sentence certainty and severity are relevant to MMS and, on balance, the evidence suggests that severity may be less critical to deterrence than initiatives boosting the certainty of punishment."

A 2000 U.S. study revealed that states with above-average rates of incarceration experienced the most modest decreases in crime. Another U.S. study -- this one into firearms offences -- showed that enhanced sentences had no significant effect on gun homicide. The best that other U.S. studies showed was a possible improvement in homicide rates linked to MMS for firearms, but the evidence was inconclusive.

An Australian study, however, found gun robbers would continue to use firearms, even knowing that MMS existed for gun offences. As for drug offences, here's what the worldwide study by Gabor/Crutcher concluded: "Severe MMS seems to be least effective in relation to drug offences. . . . Drug consumption and drug-related crime seem to be unaffected, in any measurable way, by severe MMS."

A 1999 research report for the Department of the Solicitor-General, as it then was, concluded after surveying 50 studies involving 300,000 offenders, "longer sentences were not associated with reduced recidivism. In fact, the opposite was found. Longer sentences were associated with a 3-per-cent increase in recidivism."

Professors Anthony Doob and Carla Cersaroni of the Centre of Criminology of the University of Toronto asked plaintively in a 2001 essay: "Why are we still discussing whether Canada should have any minimum sentences?" They pointed out that the Canadian Sentencing Commission and the 1952 Royal Commission on the Revision of the Criminal Code had recommended against them.

We do know, therefore, that mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime, thereby making societies safer. We also know, however, that they drive up the prison population, and make it much more likely there will be an increase in plea negotiations, lower conviction rates, and more charges either stayed, withdrawn or discharged. That's what all the studies have shown.

They have also shown that MMS falls most heavily on visible minorities whose members are overrepresented already in prisons -- such as blacks in the U.S. and aboriginals in Canada.

There isn't any evidence, therefore, in Canada or abroad that mandatory minimums deter crime. That the Harper government should be expanding them is yet another example of the triumph of focus-group-driven politics over evidence-based policy.

(c) Globe and MailĀ 

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