Since their election in 2006, the Harper government has held steady on several themes. One of the most prominent, “tough on crime,” is on the verge of being translated from rhetoric to law with the upcoming reading of Bill C-10 in the Senate.
It’s a major political victory for the Tories and their constituents — rarely has it been viable for them to actually bring their more socially conservative leanings to bear without seriously risking a chunk of moderate support. As ever, it’s difficult to compose an argument against a move towards stricter sentences on violent crimes without coming across as being soft, and Harper, the consummate tactician, has played this truism to perfection.
Not everyone is happy about this, of course — the New Democrat opposition obviously differs considerably with the government, on a fundamental level, on how to approach the mitigation and elimination of crime. However, the usual suspects are joined in this instance by some unusual bedfellows. Most significantly, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), the national body representing the legal profession, is opposing the bill in its current form, calling it a “significant step backward” for Canada’s approach to crime.
It’s almost unprecedented for the CBA to take such an aggressive step into the political ring, and it’s a telling sign that the Conservatives have once again striven to satisfy their political agenda at the expense of the national good. And that includes the good of those who would support the “tough” approach, as the impact of C-10 will be felt far beyond the jail cells of the nation.
Amongst other things, the bill imposes mandatory minimum sentences for a wide swath of crimes. It also imposes jail sentences for minor property and violent crimes where conditional sentences were previously available. This could lead to a further overcrowding of our jails and the clogging of an already choked legal system. Crown prosecutors, legal aid offices and police departments are already overcommitted, and C-10 will inevitably force these institutions to stretch themselves even further.
In my opinion, it also neuters judicial discretion. One of the primary roles of a judge is to evaluate the particular circumstances of each case and tailor a penalty appropriate to both the offence and the offender. This has a binary effect: not only does it render the justice system fairer; the knowledge that it is such encourages criminals to confess.
While mandatory jail sentences will undoubtedly lock away some deserving individuals, there is no evidence that the current system does not do so already. All they achieve will be the incarceration of people who may be undeserving of such a punishment.
There will undoubtedly be a downturn in the number of guilty pleas as offenders face an absolute sentence — not arrived upon with regard to their own particular scenario. This means more trials and, again, much greater expense, with no evidence that these will lead to a better application of the principles of justice.
The list of other changes and probable impacts could go on for pages, but they all lead back to one conclusion — taken as a whole, Bill C-10 is a particularly poorly thought out bit of law.
Greg Sacks is a second year law student