Our adorable Harper Reforma-Tories love to characterize their laws as “tough”. Those are some kind of sorry dweebs who get “tough” by drafting legislation. I have a mental image of little Stevie in elementary school, dealing with school-yard torment by having the Student Council enact “tough” laws against bullies, including provisions allowing him to sue to get his lunch money back.
The latest is the Omnibus Crime Bill, Bill C-10, which includes all manner of tough things. And, in keeping with the Tory’s practice of combining legislative enactments with campaign literature, the legislation will be called the Safe Streets and Communities Act. Really. This tough legislation will make our streets and communities safe. At long last. One wonders why we didn’t do this long ago. I’ll tell you why. Previous governments just were not tough enough.
That’s always been the problem. Yes, it is true that Canadian crime rates have been declining for thirty years. But not very quickly and not down to zero. There is still crime out there, my friends. And why? You guessed it. Because we haven’t been tough enough. Criminals haven’t taken us seriously. Well, those days are over. There’s a new sheriff in town. He’s got tough law-making powers and he’s not afraid to use them.
How? The new Omnibus KickAss Crime Bill won’t just lock ’em up and throw away the key. Our new jails won’t even have keys. [That’s a metaphor.] We’ll be restricting the use of conditional sentences for certain offences, introducing some new mandatory minimum sentences as well as increasing some old ones, increasing maximum penalties for certain sexual offenses, and a bunch of other stuff. Basically, we’ll be putting more criminals in jail for longer.
We’ll have to build new jails, the Tories freely admit, and hire more jailers. That’s going to cost money, they concede. We don’t know how much money – the government hasn’t figured that out because math is hard, I guess. But, you know, it really doesn’t matter how much it costs because, dammit, we’re talking about fighting evil bad guys here.
When confronted with concerns about the cost of our new toughness, the Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson, urges us to think about the victims. He said that crime costs victims One Hundred Billion Dollars a Year. Wow. That’s an awfully large figure to pull out of one’s ass. It must have been a great relief. He never gets challenged on this figure, which comes from a 2008 study done by his department. You can check it out – .http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/rs/rep-rap/2011/rr10_5/rr10_5.pdf The study has a lot of big numbers which, when added all together, might come to about a hundred billion, but it doesnt’ quite say what Minister Rob says it says. The one hundred billion is actually the total cost of the whole criminal justice system – police, courts, prosecutors, legal aid, jails, everything – not just the cost to victims. The direct cost to victims is calculated to be about 14 billion. That’s a lot. It’s not 100 billion. I’m sure Rob didn’t mean to mislead us.
As far as I can tell, the survey is intended to alarm us. Over sixty eight of the hundred billion is identified in the Report as “intangibles” – a dollar amount intended to represent pain and suffering and death suffered by victims. This figure is based on what the victims might have gotten had they sued the perpetrators, which they didn’t. There is a lot of actual money expended – most of it by government. But a full seventy percent of this alarming 100 billion figure is money that actually doesn’t exist anywhere.
So Minister Nicholson misrepresents a goofy survey. But for a good cause.
We’re as safe as we have been for thirty years. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t be safer, of course. But there is not a single expert on the subject who believes that Tory Toughness is going to have any positive impact. Not one. Zip. Zero. Zilch. More jails and longer sentences has not worked anywhere else and there is much evidence that it makes us less safe. “Experts”? “Evidence”? Well, the Tories have tapped into that deep pool of voters who are really tired of being told what to do by people who know things. The time has come to develop public policy by reference to what “just seems right” to those who really don’t know very much. They’ve chosen our government, they might as well determine our criminal law policy.
The other tough guy in the Tory cabinet responsible for flogging the Crime Bill is Vic “the Shiv” Toews, the Minister of Public Safety. He always has something smart to say. Vic isn’t interested in statistics. He says “I’m focused on danger.”
Yes. He actually said that. When speaking to a Senate committee, he said that the public is in danger as long as criminals walk the streets. Somehow, in Vic’s head, there is a notion that, as a result of his efforts, there will be no criminals walking the streets. Vic is from Steinbach, Manitoba. Perhaps there is no danger in Steinbach.
If you live in a safe neighbourhood, it will continue to be safe. If you live in a dangerous neighbourhood, well, you likely won’t notice a change – except the slow, incremental decrease in criminality that results from “bad” guys growing out of it and being replaced by steadily fewer young “bad” guys. The Crime Bill won’t create more safety. We know this. Maybe, if the Tories sell it well enough, the changes to the law will, for some people, create a “feeling” of increased safety. Isn’t that worth something? Worth something to whom? Because, the people paying the real price for this illusory sense of increased safety are not benefiting from it. They’re still living in dangerous communities and they or their loved ones will be spending more time in the custody of the state – more than is justified by any rehabilitative or correctional goal – just so that the Tories can claim that they’re tough and we’re safe.
In the end, rational concerns about cost, doubts about effectiveness and references to declining crime rates are not going to stop this Bill. The Tories are counting on that reliable coalition of the stupid, the crazy, and those who just don’t give a shit, to bring this thing home.
There is a certain bloodthirsty segment of our population that truly believes, against all the evidence, that harsh is effective. The harsher, the better. Then, there are people who aren’t concerned about effectiveness. They don’t care about rehabilitation, treatment, recidivism or any of that nonsense. They just know that harsh treatment for bad guys is justified and morally necessary, regardless of the consequences – that “justice” requires a balancing of evil deeds with evil consequences. Both of these groups believe that, for way too long, the justice system has been too worried about rights and not enough about retribution, too careful with process and not focused enough on punishment, too eager to coddle criminals and quick to ignore victims. The Tories have finally put all those “elite” experts and Liberal judges in their place and are delivering a justice system that makes sense to those who know right and wrong.
For most of the rest of us, the Tory Crime Bill is a near victimless crime – because those affected by it are, essentially, scumbags. They are the mean and ugly losers who do bad things and scare us. Who cares about them? Who cares about their kids or their parents or spouses? We don’t know them. They live in the squalor beyond our experience. We don’t know why they are the way they are and we’re not interested in finding out.
Call me soft on crime, but needless excess in criminal penalties is scandalous. It sucks the justice out of our justice system and brutalizes our society. It’s not tough; it’s mean-spririted. Most people are familiar with the criminal law’s presumption of innocence and the rule that the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Many are also familiar with the quotation from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England : “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”. At the very core of our criminal law is a recognition of the extraordinary nature of the state’s coercive power – the power to deprive a citizen of his or her liberty. It is an awesome power that, in a society free of state tyranny, may only be used when justified. Using that power carelessly and excessively – to score political points, to strike a phony posture of toughness, in the absence of any actual proof that it serves any justifiable purpose – is contrary to what lies at the core of our values. And, while we may comfort ourselves by saying that, well, these guys are scumbags, the fact is that we’re abandoning our principles here. And our humanity. It makes criminals of us all.
Two Amusing Things about the Ominous Crime Bill
First, the Crime Bill contains some new legislation – the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. Finally. Justice. What’s been missing from our anti-terrorism arsenal? Well, the right to sue terrorists, of course. Now, we have it. With the passage of this Bill, terrorists the world over will hear us say “We’ll see you in court, Mr. Terrorist”. Feel safer now?
The new mandatory minimum sentence that has probably attracted the most attention is the six months in jail you’ll now get for growing as few as SIX marijuana plants. Six. But don’t worry, this isn’t about just growing six plants – something that can happen by accident if you’re careless with your seeds. No, in order to be liable to the six month minimum, you have to be growing those six plants “for the purpose of trafficking”. If you are growing six plants, hoping to make a living as a pot dealer, perhaps six months locked away to brush up on business principles would be good for you.