Goguen’s biblical law

November 26, 2014

Last week the House of Commons resumed debate on the Conservative government’s Tougher Penalties for Child Predators Act.  

As I wrote when the bill was introduced – the Conservatives’ have trumpet the bill as necessary and essential piece of legislation to protect Canadian children from sexual offences.

Bill C-26 includes measures that would:

Increase mandatory minimum sentences;

Eliminate judicial discretion through mandating that sentences for a variety of crimes be served consecutively – one after another;

Establish a publicly accessible database of offenders which would include detailed personal information.

There is no debate that the protection of children should be a priority.  There is no question that sexual crimes committed against children are repugnant and everything should be done to prevent such victimization.  

Unfortunately the measure contained in C-26 will likely not advance the protection of children.  

C-26 recycles many of same failed Conservative policies – minimum sentences, reduced judicial discretion and relaxed privacy standards – that have attracted so much recent scrutiny.

Quite simply – there is little evidence that minimum sentence and public registries are effective at reducing crime or enhancing community safety – in fact the opposite is true.

In the face of this evidence the government should be held to some kind of standard to justify the measures in the new legislation.

Why are the legislative changes necessary? Why will the new laws be effective? What evidence supports the new legislation? What evidence was considered?

It was this conversation that Liberal justice critic Sean Casey attempted to have with the government.  Last Thursday Casey asked:

Mr. Speaker, I believe, on all sides of the House, it is fair to say that we abhor these terrible crimes and we should all seek to have fewer victims.

I would like to have an adult conversation about mandatory minimum penalties.

We believe in evidence-based decision making. In 1990, the justice department said, in a report:

The evidence shows that long periods served in prison increase the chance that the offender will offend again.

In 1999, research commissioned by the Solicitor General concluded that:

To argue for expanding the use of imprisonment in order to deter criminal behaviour is without empirical support.

In 2004, a Massachusetts report called mandatory minimums “a recipe for recidivism rather than a recipe for effective risk reduction”.

Would the parliamentary secretary point us to one study that shows that mandatory minimum sentences would create fewer victims?

Casey’s question was analytical, devoid of any partisan attacks and completely appropriate.  It should be an easy question to answer – simply point to the evidence.

In response to Casey’s question the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice – Robert Goguen stood in the house and invoked public sentiment and the bible as justifications for minimum sentences:

Mr. Speaker, probably the most important study that a parliamentarian could observe, read, and study is the sentiment of the public that the justice system was really shortchanging them. […] The public, in consultations that the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness had, has given us a resounding response: look, crimes of this nature will no longer be tolerated.

We have acted in accordance with those wishes. We feel that those wishes are definitely in line with what all of Canada wants, and our values. That is why we have mandatory minimum sentences. That is why we have increased maximum sentences. They reflect the gravity of the crime.

Even in the Bible, there are 10 commandments. Let us just say that maybe murder is more serious than, perhaps, stealing. They are both crimes. However, not every crime is of the same magnitude in the Criminal Code.

We feel that offences against children, the most vulnerable, are the ones that must be penalized most severely. That is the message we are conveying.

Conservative justice policy is based on biblical principles and opinion polls?

The obvious problem is that public sentiment and biblical principles don’t make good criminal justice policy and certainly are no substitute for evidence.

It may be that Canada requires new legislation to deal with sexual offences committed against children, but it is only when legislation is based on real evidence that it can be effective.

As Casey says there must be an adult conversation – perhaps this is difficult task for Goguen.

If Goguen was truly interested in making communities safer he would have been able to answer Casey’s question.

Given the importance of the protection of our children bill C-26 should be the one area where even the Conservative’s blind ideology gives ground to sound evidence based policy.

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