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Bill C-10: Tories' War On Drugs, Mandatory-Minimums Will Fail, Say U.S. Law Officials

By Guttz, Feb 24, 2012 | | |
  1. Guttz
    VANCOUVER - Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is standing by mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, despite a new warning that such laws don't work.

    Nicholson said the law, which includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, is "very targeted."

    "We develop our criminal law legislation looking at the experiences from around the world, from Britain and other countries," Nicholson said at a news conference Wednesday in Regina.

    "But again, ours is a Canadian solution to Canadian issues and we make no apology for that."

    The comments came after an attorney who helped U.S. politicians write mandatory minimum sentencing laws during the 1980s issued a warning for Canadian parliamentarians. Eric E. Sterling, who once served as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said imposing long jail terms for minor drug offences has been a mistake in the U.S. and won't work in Canada.

    "When you start going down this road of building more prisons and sending people away for long periods of time, and you convince yourself that this is going to deter people you've made a colossal mistake," said Sterling, who is now the president of the Maryland-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

    "We have learned the hard way that long sentences are not deterring people from selling drugs when the profits are so great."

    Sterling is one of 28 current and former law enforcement officials in the U.S. who have written to Canadian senators, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the premiers. They take issue with Bill C-10, known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and is currently being studied in the Senate.

    The letter, written by the organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is the latest salvo in the dispute over Bill C-10, as well as the debate over the legalization of marijuana.

    Earlier this month, four former B.C. attorneys general made a similar argument, saying marijuana prohibition is fuelling gang wars and clogging the courts.

    This week, Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, criticized the bill, telling a Senate committee that intervention and rehabilitation, not incarceration, is the right approach for aboriginal peoples.

    Despite the ongoing and continued pressure, the Conservative government said it has no intention of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

    In their letter, the law enforcement officials argue that mandatory minimum sentences have been "costly failures" in the U.S. and have led to greater organized crime and gang violence, corruption and social decay.

    "These policies have bankrupted state budgets as limited tax dollars pay to imprison non-violent drug offenders at record rates instead of programs that can actually improve community safety," the organization writes.

    In fact, Sterling said when the U.S. wrote its mandatory minimum laws in 1986, about 36,000 people were locked up in federal prisons. He said that number has now jumped to about 200,000.

    "Probably we have on the order of half a million Americans behind bars on drug charges nationwide," he said, after taking into account those who are serving time in state prisons, too.

    If it costs $25,000 to incarcerate an individual in a U.S. prison annually, then the country is spending billions of dollars locking up people for drug offences, added Sterling.

    The organization calls on Canadian politicians to endorse the taxation and regulation of marijuana.

    After all, it says the U.S. is becoming more progressive with its pot laws, noting 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted medical marijuana laws and 14 states have taken steps to decriminalize possession.

    "We changed our minds and we encourage you to do the same," the group writes.

    "Taxation and regulation of marijuana have the potential to dramatically improve community safety, raise tax revenue for cash-starved governments and allow precious law enforcement resources to be directed towards criminal activities where law enforcement actually reduced crime."

    The 28 signatories include former and current police chiefs, border, customs and immigration agents, judges, prosecutors, correctional officials, law enforcement officers, and legislative counsel.

    Nicholson said Wednesday that he hasn't read the letter, but insisted the government will move forward.

    "Over the years there has been introduced mandatory penalties by different governments. I think there's about 40 of them in the criminal code, so they're nothing new to this government," he said.

    "But I believe they send out the right message to individuals that if you start bringing, for instance, drugs into this country, if you're into the business of trafficking, there will be a price to pay and you'll be going to jail."

    — With files from Jennifer Graham in Regina

    First Posted: 02/22/2012 4:00 am Updated: 02/22/2012 3:40 pm


  1. Terrapinzflyer
    Re: Bill C-10: Tories' War On Drugs, Mandatory-Minimums Will Fail, Say U.S. Law Offic

    Learning a lesson from America’s failed war on drugs

    On Wednesday, 28 current and former American law enforcement officials wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of the Canadian Senate urging the decriminalization of marijuana and warning against the effects of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

    Before anyone gets up-in-arms about Americans sticking their noses into our business, consider that many of these people have been directly involved in crafting and enforcing America’s war on drugs. They all belong to the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which includes a number of Canadian board members.

    One of the signatories to the letter is Eric E. Sterling, who helped U.S. politicians write minimum sentencing laws in the 1980s, in his role as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. “Imposing long jail terms for minor drug offences has been a mistake in the United States, and won’t work in Canada,” Mr. Sterling told the CBC.

    And he should know, as the tough-on-crime laws developed in the 1980s and ‘90s led directly to America’s out of control prison population. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration rates in the United States between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 inmates per 100,000 people. After 1980, that number began to skyrocket: Increasing to 753 by 2008. In comparison, Canada’s rate remained fairly steady between 2006 and 2010, at about 140 prisoners for every 100,000 people, according to Statistics Canada.

    The increase in the U.S. prison population had nothing to do with an increase in actual crime. Rates of violent and property crimes have decreased significantly since the ‘80s — in both the United States and Canada. The increase in American prison populations is directly related to mandatory minimum and three-strikes-you’re-out laws. Upwards of 60% of U.S. prisoners have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes; 20% of all inmates have been locked away for non-violent drug-related offences — double the percentage in 1980. This trend has cost taxpayers a great deal.

    State correctional spending is four times what it was 20 years ago — totalling $52-billion a year and increasing faster than any other budget item. States, such as California, with huge budget deficits literally cannot afford the expense. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, which mandated that state penitentiaries release approximately 30,000 inmates, in order to decrease overcrowded prisons that were at double their intended capacity. But this does not necessarily mean releasing violent criminals onto the street. In 2010, California was holding 25,000 people for drug offences — over 8,500 for drug possession, and about 1,400 on marijuana charges.

    If Canada is to avoid going down the same path, the simple solution would be to lessen the punishment for marijuana-related offences and use our limited resources to cut down on violent crimes. When the Liberals mused about decriminalizing marijuana in the 1990s, there were real worries about how the U.S. government would react. But as the LEAP letter points out, many states have already reformed their drug laws:

    “In recent years, marijuana policies in the United States have become much more progressive than those in Canada. For instance, 16 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing some degree of medical use for marijuana, and 14 states have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana possession.”

    Unfortunately, Bill C-10, the Harper government’s omnibus crime bill, takes this country in the opposite direction: Imposing harsh minimum sentences for marijuana offences. So harsh, that as Ethan Baron pointed out in Vancouver’s Province newspaper, the minimum sentence for growing 201 plants would be the same as for someone convicted of raping a child; the maximum sentence for growing pot would increase to 14 years, “four years more than for someone sexually assaulting a kid without using a weapon.”

    It is the unfortunate truth that we hear, on virtually a daily basis, stories of people of who have committed heinous crimes getting off with a slap on the wrist and repeat offenders being put back on Canadian streets. There is little doubt that our criminal justice system needs to be reformed — we need tougher sentences for repeat offenders and truth-in-sentencing provisions (no more get-out-of-jail-free cards after serving 1/3 of an already lenient sentence). But giving pot growers harsher sentences than child rapists is unconscionable, and shows that the law is completely devoid of any moral relevancy.

    The omnibus crime bill is currently being studies in the Senate, and the government has pledged to make some changes. I would strongly encourage the government to learn a lesson from the experience in the United States, and do away with the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, including marijuana offences.

    Jesse Kline
    Feb 23, 2012

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