Criminal justice policy should be publicly debated during election campaigns

October 16, 2019

Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, during the 1993 federal election, was quoted as saying that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.” A few short weeks later, Campbell’s Conservatives were dealt a resounding electoral defeat and the gaffe (although Campbell said she was misquoted) has gone down as one of the biggest election blunders in Canadian history.

It turns out that the public would like to believe that elections are indeed the best time to discuss serious issues — unless those issues are criminal justice policy.

You see, despite daily press conferences, ubiquitous social media campaigns, multiple debates, and a stream of partisan surrogates flooding talk shows, criminal justice issues have been almost entirely absenting from the 2019 federal election.

Criminal justice policy directly impacts public safety, government finances, public health, and Indigenous reconciliation, but it turns out that an election is no time to discuss crime and punishment.

And silence on justice is probably what some of the leaders want because each party does indeed have a criminal justice platform and their positions say a lot about who they are and what they stand for.

The Liberals’ justice policy — “Keeping Canadians Safe” — is about as unambitious as possible. It seems that Justin Trudeau learned a lesson after the 2015 election. Back then he promised he would base justice policy on facts, not make up facts to suit a preferred policy. He said his government would repeal ineffective and harmful mandatory minimum sentences. He said he would strengthen parliamentary committees so they could better scrutinize legislation. And he said the Liberals would overhaul the justice system in a transformative way to ensure that it achieves fair and just results.

After forming a government, these lofty promises were quickly forgotten. Mandatory minimum sentences remained, and politics, not evidence, drove policy decisions. There was none of the promised transformational justice reform.

During this election campaign the Liberal justice promises are more modest: a crackdown on assault rifles, a promise to work with municipalities to allow handgun bans, and more money for police and victim support groups.

It seems the Liberals have learned that lofty promises not made cannot be broken.

The Conservatives’ criminal justice platform reads like a Stephen Harper “greatest hits” tribute album. Andrew Scheer wants to crack down on gun violence, too, and he has a simple plan designed to win over simple minds: end automatic bail for gang members, revoke parole for gang members, and impose mandatory minimum sentences for some gang-related offences.

The problem is that Scheer’s plan is built on a foundation of half-truths and lies.

There is no such thing as automatic bail for gang crimes. Gang members who return to a criminal lifestyle already have their parole revoked. And mandatory minimum sentences have been found, over and over again, to be ineffective and unconstitutional.

The Conservative criminal justice platform is an insult to the intelligence of Canadians. It is built on racist tropes and defies all the criminological evidence. It is a Harper copy-and-paste job that does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

The NDP’s plan is all about “Enhancing Our Justice System” and directly calls out the successive failures of Conservative and Liberal governments whose policies have resulted in an overburdened and unequitable justice system.

The NDP is right; the status quo isn’t serving Canadians. And its platform includes promises to reduce the reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing and to allow trial judges greater discretion in sentencing. The NDP also links justice issues to Indigenous reconciliation and pledges to strengthen the Gladue principles and uphold restorative justice approaches.

Legal aid also features prominently in its platform, as the NDP promises to increase federal funding for legal aid programs to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to legal supports.

The NDP’s justice platform is a breath of fresh air after years of ineffective and punitive Conservative and Liberal broken promises.

The Green party also has a similarly progressive justice platformthat recognizes that the justice system criminalizes far too many Indigenous persons, members of visible minority com- munities and people suffering from mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. The Greens would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and solitary confinement and launch a confidential buyback program for handguns and assault weapons.

So, with major differences between the leading political parties, and given the broad impacts of justice policy, why has it been absent from public debate?

The answer may be simple: both Scheer and Trudeau have good reason to shy away from their justice platforms. One is built on lies and the other is an unambitious and cowardly recognition of broken promises.

When the election frontrunners have such flawed justice platforms, an election is definitely not the time they want to discuss this serious issue.

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