Good politics but bad policy

February 4, 2015   ·   0 Comments

PERHAPS IT’S JUST BECAUSE it’s an election year that we are seeing more and more legislation emerging at Ottawa that strikes us as designed primarily to get votes rather than deal with real problems.

A classic example is a planned government bill amending the Criminal Code which Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says will keep “individuals who represent a threat” behind bars with no chance of ever being paroled.

Initial reports indicate the bill will not affect all killers but rather many of those found guilty of first-degree (planned and deliberate) murder whose victims were police, soldiers or prison guards or were sexually assaulted at the time of the homicide.

As we see it, the need for the legislation is purely political. The reality is that while the murder rate in Canada is far below that in the United States, we have had some very high-profile killings of police officers and soldiers in recent months, and there is a general perception that life sentences in Canada aren’t really that.

Without a doubt, a poll asking Canadians whether they favour having the option of life sentences without eligibility to seek parole would be similar to that asking whether they favoured reintroduction of capital punishment. The vast majority would favour such a law, so long as it didn’t mean they would have to pay more taxes (something proponents of such laws invariably “guarantee”).

As a starting point, let’s look at the need for such a law.

Last December, Statistics Canada reported that the country’s homicide rate fell in 2013 to 1.44 victims for every 100,000 people, its lowest level since 1966. Police reported 505 homicides, down 38 from the previous year.

Although that was 505 more than we should have had, the number compares fairly well with the situation across the border in Detroit, which that year had 386 murders among its 680,000 residents – a rate of 54.6 per 100,000.

What is certain is that this bill will not reduce the Canadian crime rate, and will greatly increase the risks facing prison guards; prisoners with no hope of parole will see killing a guard as penalty-free.

Nor will it act as a deterrent. Everyone knows that violent criminals do not rationally weigh possible penalties before committing crimes. Mr. Blaney has justified the bill by suggesting it is in response to victims’ criticism of a justice system that “coddles” criminals.

However, the Harper Conservatives have already eliminated the Code’s “faint hope” clause allowing lifers to ask jurors to permit them to seek parole before 25 years, and the fact is that killers like Clifford Olson never get parole despite multiple applications.

Under the law as it exists, some multiple killers like Paul Bernardo and Orangeville’s David Alexander Snow have also been declared dangerous offenders, with indeterminate sentences that virtually guarantee life without parole.

And the reality is that even those who do get parole are subject to supervision by parole authorities for the rest of their lives.

One thing we’ll probably never hear is just how much it will cost keeping 80-year-old killers behind bars in federal prisons.

Male inmates in Canadian maximum-security prisons currently cost $150,000 a year and female inmates are even more expensive). Across Canada, we have eight penitentiaries capable of housing about 2,600 inmates at maximum security, for an annual cost slightly under $400 million. And since all eight are full, the new law will guarantee a need for their expansion.

Returning for a moment to the matter of need, we have yet to see one highly relevant statistic, namely the number of homicides that have been committed by killers who have won release on parole.

Clearly, the only real need for this bill is the Harper Tories’ need to win another election.


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