Ontario judge blasts Harper government’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda: Editorial
The Harper government’s obsession with crime is having a corrosive effect on the justice system, an Ontario judge argues.
Editorial, Toronto Star, May 8, 2013
We’ve known for some time that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “tough on crime” agenda carries a stiff and wasteful price tag. Canadians are spending $5 billion more a year on the criminal justice system since the Tories were elected in 2006, even as the crime rate has plummeted. Those billions would be better invested in economic growth, productivity and jobs.
What’s less well-recognized is the corrosive effect the government’s punitively blind obsession with crime is having on the justice system itself. Changes to the Criminal Code have cast what one respected jurist calls a “dark shadow” on foundational principles of proportionality and restraint that hark back to Biblical law thousands of years ago. Today sentencing seems to be more about exacting vengeance than about deterrence, rehabilitation and making good.
That’s the concern raised by Justice Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice in a timely and powerfully argued essay for the Criminal Lawyers Association newsletter. His cri de coeur comes as the courts begin to push back against the government’s wilder excesses.
At every turn the Conservatives have been tying judges’ hands and stiffening sanctions, Green points out. Parliament has legislated mandatory minimum sentences, usurping judicial discretion. Conditional sentencing has been all but eliminated. Credit for pre-sentence custody has been capped, and cut. Parole eligibility has been circumscribed and delayed. Pardons are harder to get. People can now be deported for relatively minor offences.
“A policy of punishment, incapacitation and stigmatization has replaced one premised on the prospect of rehabilitation, restoration and reform,” Green observes. Making incarceration the “primary response” to crime runs counter to sound Canadian practice and research for the past 40 years, and is ultimately self-defeating. It apes a misguided American approach that has proved to be a costly failure.
“Draconian penalties will never address the rewiring and therapy necessary to make damaged persons, if not whole then, at least productive and responsible participants in the communities we share,” Green notes. “Severe penal responses to crime do not make our streets any safer. If they did, the United States would be the safest country on the planet. Prisons breed criminal behaviour.”
Green makes a persuasive case that, rather than force judges to impose one-size-fits-all sanctions, Parliament would have been better-advised to leave judges with the discretion to tailor the sentence to the offender, with rehabilitation and restoration firmly in mind