Headlines, Human Rights, North America

CANADA: Gov’t Talks Tough on (Falling) Crime

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Mar 6 2006 (IPS) - Law and order has emerged as one area where a shaky minority government led by the right-wing Conservative party in Canada could reach an agreement with the country’s three centre- and centre-left opposition parties.

Statistics Canada, a government agency, reports that the crime rate on average is about 12 percent lower than it was a decade ago. But some high-profile gang-related murders – particularly one involving a young girl who was caught up in a shooting spree while shopping on the Boxing Day holiday in downtown Toronto – have helped to galvanise politicians left and right to promise tougher measures, including mandatory minimum sentences for serious weapons crimes.

The new prime minister, Stephen Harper, recently included “the protection of Canadian families and communities by strengthening the justice [system]” as part of his government’s five priorities, promising an increase in minimum sentences for certain crimes.

“We’re committed to the enactment of mandatory minimum penalties for gun crimes and enacting minimum prison sentences for serious drug offences,” Canada’s new justice minister Vic Toews said in an interview with the Edmonton Journal shortly after he was sworn in.

One Winnipeg lawyer has suggested that Canada will need to build more jail cells if Toews follows through on a pledge to jail people convicted of manslaughter and impaired driving causing death, rather than putting them under house arrest in a conditional sentence.

But criminologist Liz Elliot says there is no evidence that U.S.-style minimum penalties discourage criminal acts.

A former social worker who still works in prisons, Elliot told IPS that, “If they are talking about deterrents, this is kind of silly. I could probably count on both hands all of the people over 25 years that I have met in jail who actually knew the criminal code provisions.”

Elliot also says that judges want the ability to be flexible in sentencing. She cites tougher Canadian laws that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers of illegal drugs. “People were getting sentences that they were quite uncomfortable with, because in some cases they seemed unduly harsh as a response,” she said.

She added that politicians who call for tougher law and order measures tend to prefer immediate “reactive” solutions rather than investing money in long-term social measures that get at the roots of male youth crime. “Crime prevention through social development is probably a generation’s task, but political mandates are three to five years,” Elliot noted.

Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby says that the Harper government is also intent on dismantling the current national gun registry (introduced by the previous Liberal government), which he describes as a contradiction if one wants to stop gun crime in Canada.

“What we are seeing is not so much a law and order agenda as an agenda that meets the prejudices of the rural west [where opposition to gun control is particularly strong]. That is the [Conservatives] taking care of their base,” Ruby said.

Calling law and order “a created issue”, Ruby is upset that the former Liberal attorney-general, Irwin Cotler, was pressured to recant his earlier misgivings about minimum sentencing and toe the party line during the election.

“Jailing more people – that is the American model that the right wants. But the Americans put everybody in jail for a long term. It is much more expensive than our system,” he said.

How much of an issue was law and order in the last Canadian election? The fact that a shooting occurred in downtown Toronto during the campaign forced Canadian politicians to respond, says University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Weisman.

Notwithstanding the low crime rate here, the issue still has legs because of the nightly television media coverage of murders, fires and accidents, states Weisman. “If it gets attention or there are sensational words about it, then more people say it is a top-of-the-mind issue for them,” he said.

Yet pollster Marc Zwelling of Vector Research & Development counters that it was the announcement during the election in December that police were investigating alleged corruption in the office of the federal finance minister that destroyed the Liberal lead in the polls and ultimately defeated a party already hurt by previous scandals.

“Nothing else moved the line in the nightly polls… not the Boxing Day shooting in Toronto or Harper’s [Goods and Services tax] cut promise. The five to six percent Liberal drop between late December and the first week of January all seemed to go Conservative and it was game over,” Zwelling said.

“The shooting behooved the big three leaders (Conservatives, Liberals and NDP) to call for minimum sentences,” he added. “[But it] didn’t seem to do anything in the polls.”

Weisman says there are significant differences among the Canadian political parties regarding justice issues, with the social democratic New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, a little further to the left, both more focused on investing in communities as a crime prevention measure than are the Conservatives.

At the same time, the political scientist doubts that justice will be a make or break issue that will cause the opposition parties to unite and force the government out of power in a parliamentary vote. “The Conservatives have had a harder line on law and order. But in practice it hasn’t been a big thing,” he said.

Weisman says that justice is more of an issue sharply dividing the political parties at the provincial level, where the Conservatives have generally taken a tougher position on the issue than their federal counterparts.

Criminal justice is divided in the Canadian federal system, with the national government charged with the writing of the criminal law and provinces responsible for its administration and policing.

Youth crime was a less significant issue in French-speaking Quebec during the election, adds Elliot. “Their juvenile justice [system] is miles ahead of everybody else [in Canada]. They already do a very aggressive social development strategy in Quebec. They incarcerate at a lower level than the rest of the provinces.”

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