January 21, 2006
MINIMUM SENTENCES FALLING OUT
Janice Tibbetts, The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, January 06, 2006
Promises by Canadian politicians to impose tougher automatic prison terms for gun crimes are being rolled out at a time when there is a worldwide trend away from minimum sentences and some countries are repealing their laws, says a new study.
The report, compiled by an Ottawa criminologist for the federal Justice Department, concludes mandatory prison terms appear to "have no discernible effect on crime rates" and create problems such as costly prison overcrowding and harsh treatment of minorities.
"After a decade in which a number of ... countries enacted mandatory sentencing legislation, there is clear evidence that several jurisdictions are either repealing or amending these punitive laws," wrote Julian Roberts of the University of Ottawa.
His survey, which examined minimum jail terms in several countries, was submitted to the Justice Department in the fall. Mr. Roberts noted minimum sentences have become a favourite of some Canadian politicians and they are particularly popular at election time.
The latest caution comes amid promises from the major political parties to an electorate that is nervous about violent gun crimes in major Canadian cities, including a Boxing Day shoot-out in downtown Toronto that killed an innocent teenager while she was shopping.
The Conservatives made a pledge yesterday to impose minimum mandatory terms of five to 10 years for major gun crimes, including five years for possession of a loaded restricted or prohibited weapon.
The Liberals have also promised to increase mandatory minimum sentences, introducing a bill just before the election that would have doubled automatic jail terms to two years from the current one year. Mr. Martin said earlier this week he is prepared to go even further.
There are already 29 minimum mandatory sentences in the Criminal Code, half of which were imposed in 1995 gun control legislation that increased punishment for crimes committed with firearms. Minimum penalties also exist for treason, murder and repeated impaired driving.
Automatic jail terms are controversial, however, because they take away judges' discretion to impose sentences they see fit. Mr. Roberts noted Canada's minimum sentences for firearms crimes are relatively unique because they leave no discretion whatsoever for judges, unlike other countries that allow judicial flexibility in exceptional circumstances. Mr. Roberts names South Africa, Australia, England and the state of Michigan as jurisdictions that have retreated from minimum sentences in recent years. For example, mandatory sentencing laws for certain drug violations were eliminated in Michigan in 2002, allowing courts to consider mitigating factors. The latest public opinion polls in Australia and the United States also show that public support for automatic jail time has declined in the last decade, Mr. Roberts said.
The general public, he wrote, has little knowledge of offences that carry automatic jail penalties and when they participate in polls, support dips if they are asked to consider anything but the worst-case scenarios. For instance, "three-strikes" laws that impose automatic jail time for a third offence in the United States are falling out of favour among the American public as a result of revelations people are being jailed for crimes such as stealing a bicycle if it is a third offence