Lovisa Stannow: Memo to Canada: Don't ape U.S. crime policy, Toronto Star, October 20, 2006.
Mandatory minimum sentencing schemes do not work, at least not if the goal is to reduce violent crime and improve public safety. In the United States we know that, because we have tried them all. Canadians may therefore be surprised to learn that their government is mimicking this failed U.S. penal model, in the name of getting tough on violent crime.
Bill C-9, currently before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, is a mandatory sentencing scheme in light disguise.
If enacted, it would remove the right of judges to impose conditional sentences for a range of crimes, require the incarceration of defendants who are currently eligible for community service, and result in an influx of thousands of inmates into Canadian detention facilities.
The one thing Bill C-9 almost certainly would not do is make Canadians safer.
From the perspective of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a Los Angeles-based human rights organization that seeks to eliminate sexual violence in all forms of detention, Bill C-9 is a recipe for disaster.
Last May and June, an SPR delegation visited Canada. We spoke with officials from the Correctional Service of Canada and toured facilities like Kingston Penitentiary and the Quebec City Detention Centre.
The purpose of our visit was to understand what policies and practices have led to lower levels of sexual violence in Canadian prisons than in their American counterparts.
We found that the Canadian correctional system is doing better largely because the size of the inmate population is manageable. A shift to mandatory minimum sentencing would jeopardize that achievement.
The U.S. experience has shown that mandatory sentencing dramatically increases the rates of incarceration without deterring crime.
Even when crime rates in the U.S. have dropped, blanket sentencing policies were not the reason.
For example, between 1991 and 2001, mandatory minimum sentences alone caused incarceration rates to increase by 139 per cent in Texas and 11 per cent in New York. During that same period, the crime rate dropped by 34 per cent in Texas and 53 per cent in New York.
Thus, despite its greater reliance on mandatory sentencing schemes, Texas was much less effective at reducing crime than New York.
Today, more than two decades after these schemes were widely adopted, the U.S. holds some 2.2 million people behind bars, more than any other country in the world.
Even accounting for the differences in population size, that is more than six times the rate in Canada.
In the process, U.S. federal, state, and local governments have spent astronomical sums on building ever more prisons and jails — and those facilities are still seriously overcrowded and dysfunctional.
Mandatory sentencing laws in the U.S. have also had the effect of targeting the wrong criminals. Bill C-9 would do the same.
By depriving judges of the right to consider mitigating factors in sentencing, the law would virtually guarantee that the least violent offenders, with good prospects for rehabilitation, would join the prison population.
The gun-toting gangsters Prime Minister Stephen Harper and tough-on-crime lawmakers purport to be worried about would not be affected. They already receive lengthy prison sentences under Canadian law.
Worse still, defendants imprisoned under the proposed bill would include those at highest risk of suffering sexual violence in prison, such as first-time offenders who are unschooled in the ways of prison life.
The U.S. experience suggests that such inmates would be more likely to be raped or abused, to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and to suffer severe psychological harm.
Anyone who thinks prisoner rape and other forms of sexual violence do not matter to those on the outside should think again.
Virtually all inmates are eventually released, both in the U.S. and in Canada. When returning to their communities, they bring with them their prison experiences, including learned violent behaviour and the effects of trauma.
For all of these reasons — ineffectiveness, overcrowding, spiralling violence, high cost — jurisdictions across the U.S. have begun in recent years to reconsider their mandatory sentencing laws.
In the 2003 legislative session alone, 25 states modified their sentencing and corrections policies or otherwise sought to lessen sentences. Five states repealed or reduced mandatory minimum terms.
A growing number of American judges, including conservatives, insist that sentencing that is responsive to specific circumstances is far more effective than a mandatory penalty.
Against that backdrop, the desire of Canadian lawmakers to follow the U.S. approach is puzzling.
Indeed, considering the fact that Canada has a crime rate far below that of the U.S., and a penal system that is relatively safe and cost effective, copying a failed American model seems like a very bad idea.
Lovisa Stannow is the co-executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a U.S.-based human rights organization. She has spent the past two decades working in the fields of communications and international human rights. She is the former Executive Director of the Pacific Institute for Women's Health and the West Coast Director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.