The mantra of the Canadian Justice System under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been “tough on crime.” What does that actually mean in practice? The main results of this approach seems to be longer sentences for nearly all criminal offences, less sentencing control by judges due to mandatory minimums and the removal of enhanced credit for pre-sentencing time served or “dead time”, and an increasing over-zealousness by the police and prosecutors to press as many charges as possible and send all suspects to jail respectively.
The practice of increasing sentences for crimes is more of a smoke and mirror show that is used by the government to create an illusion that the general public is safer. The problem is that harsher sentences really have not been found effective in acting as a deterrent to crime that it claims to create. Also, if our main principle guiding the Canadian Corrections System is truly rehabilitation how is increasing punishment working towards that end? As jails get more and more over-crowded due to convicts staying in jail longer providing proper programs to aid in rehabilitation becomes more costly and more difficult. The building of Super Jails and the increased use of segregation at the jail and penitentiary level work to actually make the convict worse off when he/she entered custody than when they came in.
Mandatory minimums have come into law for many of the laws found in the Criminal Code of Canada. This means that criminal laws which hold a mandatory minimum require the judge to include a custodial element (usually 14 or 45 days depending on the seriousness of the crime) to his/her sentencing. This also takes a Conditional Sentence (house arrest, curfew, etc) off the table. Again, this fills the jail with more people. Secondly, the removal of enhanced credit for pre-sentencing time served has removed another tool from the judiciary to take into account the conditions a person has to deal with prior to any conviction or acquittal. Often charged individuals must live in over-crowded jails and sleep on the floor. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?
Another disturbing trend in the Canadian Justice System is that the police and prosecutors are becoming more and more over-zealous in their pursuit of “justice”. Growing up my understanding of the Justice System was that its goal was to find out the “truth”. However, having seen and experienced the system firsthand I now know that “truth” is a relative term and, unfortunately, open to interpretation and revision. It appears as though the police are willing to charge a person with a large number of charges per incident knowing full well that many of them are irrelevant and will be dropped. Another common practice is the writing up of witness and suspect testimony with changes in the phrasing and wording to more completely meets their needs. Is this the seeking of justice or the chasing of quotas? The Crown Attourneys are along for this ride as they appear to encourage this practice of over-charging as a means to assist in their plea-bargaining. It also seems like Crown Attourneys are pushing more and more for longer sentences and jail time for more crimes. Again, what happened to representing the people in finding the truth?
Overall, we have a system in Canada that has a stated purpose of protecting society and it is better than many systems throughout the world. However, we should expect more from our system than “better than most.” We should expect our Justice System to reflect our values. I don’t think we value locking people up in cages for longer and longer sentences. I don’t think we value taking the power away from our judges and put it into the hands of people who rely on elections. And finally, I doubt we really want a society that allows the police and Crown Attourneys to skim over the truth in order to get a conviction. Lets not be blind and allow this to go on right in front of us. We shouldn’t take joy in seeing things like “Mr. Smith jailed” or “John Smith sentenced to 20 years” without fully knowing the truth.