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In the spring of 2012, the Omnibus budget legislation passed in the House of Commons, which included mandatory minimum sentencing, fewer conditional sentences, and harsher sentences for young offenders served. This tough-on-crime legislation looks good on paper, but once enacted, will it increase jail populations and increase costs for taxpayers in Canada? Or will it help reduce the crime rate?

Canada doesn’t have to look too far to the south to see an example of what mandatory minimums and tougher sentences can do to the corrections system. In the 1980s, the United States passed similar legislation to control drug trafficking. Minimum mandatory legislation was passed for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. At that time, supporters of mandatory sentencing believed that harsh penalties would act as a deterrent, and that fewer people would be inclined to risk involvement with drugs. In addition, those convicted of drug trafficking would be incapable of committing further crimes because they would remain in prison for much longer periods of time.

Incarcerated Americans

But since the U.S. passed minimum mandatory sentencing, the total number of Americans incarcerated annually has doubled, and the cost to incarcerate a person has also gone up. A study done by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a 660% increase in incarceration costs from 1982 to 2006. Law enforcement costs increased 420%. The statistics tell the story: This U.S. legislation failed to reduce crime, and instead increased incarcerations rates and costs to taxpayers.

Judicial discretion also becomes a central issue in the process. The question becomes whether politicians should be making decisions about the sentences of people brought before a court of law. A judge hears a case from start to finish, and the realities of the judicial system are that judges, within defined parameters, are in the best position to decide what penalties are appropriate.

This is especially true when dealing with alcohol and drug addicts. Studies have shown repeatedly that the best approach is treatment along with supervision. You can send people to jail forever, but unless they receive proper treatment, they’ll still be addicts when they get out.

Specialty courts are the best example of how well-defined programs with judicial discretion can enact the most change, rather than trying to incarcerate our way out of an epidemic. When brought before these courts, addicted offenders, who account for a huge proportion of the U.S. corrections population, can plead guilty to their charges in exchange for a conditional sentence, one that replaces jail time with mandatory drug or alcohol treatment. Court teams have the ability to address the issues of each offender, case-by-case.

Research conclusively shows that these specialty courts have saved money by decreasing incarceration costs and decreasing recidivism rates for people with drug and alcohol offenses.

What do you think? Is Canada on the right track with mandatory minimums to get tough on crime? Or should the U.S. serve as a model of a system that tried and failed at tough-on-crime sentencing efforts?

Sobering Up Administrator

Sobering Up Administrator

Sobering Up: A blog about drunk driving, alcohol addiction, and criminal justice, is anything but a corporate blog. Sobering Up is an opportunity for anyone interested or involved in the issues of drunk driving, alcohol-fueled crime, alcohol dependence and addiction, and the justice system to participate in the conversation.

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