Liberals may change Minimum Sentence…. For the Worse.

August 22, 2016

The Harper Conservatives talked a tough game on crime and punishment and after 10 years in government the Criminal Code certainly reflected that ideology. The changes did not happen all at once but slowly – the death was one of a thousand cuts. The Conservatives were wicked smart in implementing their crime agenda. Major legislative changes were buried in massive omnibus bills. Small but problematic amendments were hurried through Parliament and shielded from constitutional scrutiny in private members bills, and the parliamentary review process was gamed to suppress evidence that contradicted the Conservative agenda.We are living with the sad results: overcrowded jails, massive costs, reduced public safety, and law after law ruled to be unconstitutional.And there is no better example of the Conservatives’ disdain for evidence-based criminal justice policy than mandatory minimum sentences.

But it is 2016 and the Liberal government is considering changes to minimum sentence laws.

So everything may change – for the worse.

The Canadian Press is reporting that the Liberals are examining changes to minimum sentences.

“A report prepared for the Justice Department says “a politically viable strategy” is to craft exemptions to mandatory minimums that kick in when certain criteria are met, as seen in several other countries.For instance, relief from a mandatory minimum could be granted in the case of a juvenile offender, an early guilty plea or when an accused provides substantial help to the state, says the report by criminologist Yvon Dandurand of the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia.”

Politically viable?

So much for evidence based policy and principle.  And since when did the Department of Justice consider political strategy – I thought they were concerned with things like the law?

But lets take a step back – minimum sentence are simply poor policy – full stop.

Minimum sentences remove judicial discretion to impose sentences that takes into account the individual characteristics of the offender and the offence. The result – grossly disproportionate sentences that are “so excessive as to outrage standards of decency” and are “abhorrent or intolerable” to society – those are the Supreme Court’s words.

Mandatory minimum sentences also result in the insidious transfer of discretion from judges to the Crown prosecutors — who have the discretion to drop a minimum sentence in exchange for a plea to a lesser charge. This sort of deal, dangled before an incarcerated accused, can result in a perverse inducement for the innocent to plead guilty. 

The costs of minimum sentences – both financial and social – come with little benifit. Evidence strongly suggests that minimum sentences don’t deter crime, reduce reoffence rates, or make our communitys any safer. 

The minimum sentence exemptions suggested – a juvenile offender, an early guilty plea or when an accused provides substantial help to the state – will only make a bad situation worse.

Minimum sentence already don’t apply to young offenders – so that does not really change anything (so why mention it?).

The criteria of an “early guilty plea” will only exacerbate the perverse incentive for the innocent to plead guilty and completely discounts the presumption of innocence, the right to a trial, and the right to full disclosure – the legal term for these are “Charter Rights”.

And I am not even sure what “providing substantial help to the state” means.  Are we going to reward jail house informants – evidence that courts have routinely characterized as unreliable? But you know – people love turning state before going to jail – that usually works out really well. 

@mspratt “early pleas and state cooperation” Innocents pleading and jail house informants are not an improvement. #trustthejudges #commonlaw

— john struthers (@johnstruthers) August 21, 2016

So the exemptions don’t really restore judicial discretion.  They only water down existing Charter rights and raise the spectre of unreliable evidence and wrongful convictions.

@mspratt they're terrified of being labelled soft on crime, instead should articulate their own agenda

— Benjamin Perrin (@ProfBenPerrin) August 21, 2016

The Liberals – the party of the Charter – ran on a platform of evidence based policy. The suggested exemptions don’t reflect the evidence and do little to give life to the Charter. 

From Sunny Ways to political viability in less than a year would be a tragedy.

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