Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Harper's Conservative Canada - "A kinder, gentler America" ? The downside of Mandatory Minimums - Vecchiato's Voice

Let's put it point blank: there is no up side to mandatory minimums--formulated prison sentences based on a grid and exempt for judicial wisdom. Having to calculate a sentence is rather like figuring out your body mass index. It's about the same mentality.

Like columnist Ian Mulgrew, I saw the statistic in the Vancouver Sun that shows one out of every 100 Americans is incarcerated, a rate that surpasses even China. Even 15 years ago, the U.S. had flown past former apartheid South Africa in its quest for incarcerating as many people as possible. The Sun reported this statistic the day before it reported the imposition of mandatory minimums. Watch for accidental juxtapositions. You have to subscribe to Harper's Magazine to see them paralleled on purpose.

Tough on crime advocates may feel that this is the only choice left. Think again.

I recall a story about a middle-aged devout Mormon had taken his RV to Mexico. He'd met a fellow American whose car had broken down, if I remember correctly, and he agreed to take some of the man's possessions back as the man would have to fly. Needless to say, the possessions included illicit substances. The judge was nearly in tears for he knew the man was innocent (just naive and too Christian perhaps). The laws governing mandatory minimums bound the hands of justice; he was unable to intervene.

The legal system for the aforementioned policy is set up so that the maximum sentence is imposed, then downward departures are applied, including items such as "First time offender" or "Did the perpetrator show remorse?" Battling the system is for the rich only, and there are attorneys who are making big bucks reading through briefs and finding the missed downward departure. It's like a millionaire's game of legal hide and seek.

The biggest problem with this sort of sentencing, besides not using the wisdom of the bench, is the effect it has on families. First-time offenders may have used bad judgment; their crime may have not resulted in a victim, but the intent was there. When we incarcerate so many people we, as a society, are throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. The annual cost of incarceration is the same as a year at Harvard. If the inmate worked, the community loses the tax contributions. What is worse is the possibility of his having a wife and children, who now sit in prison visiting rooms, go on public assistance if the man was the major bread winner, thus the punishment expands beyond the scope of merely punishing the individuals. In order to fund this surge of sentencing, our public servants who make these decisions need money. In California's case with its Three Strikes and You're Out law, the money was there. They just took it out of the education till.

Don't think I'm soft of crime: One of my high school friends was murdered by Ted Bundy; an old boyfriend and his wife and 18 month old child were tortured and murdered by Leonard Lake and Charles Ng. In cases like these, there is little comparison with the sort of infractions governed by mandatory minimums.

On the other hand, I have a brother who has started the in and outs of the state prison system. He suffers from chronic addiction, progressive mental illness, and a brain injury--a result of an auto accident 30 years ago. He is the homeless sort with the bicycle who stands in front of the convenience store and gets arrested for loitering. He's a nuisance, I'm sure. However, a recent CNN report on the mentally ill in Florida filmed a judge who is tired of recycling the mentally ill through the penal system. Our politicians seem to think imprisonment is the be all and end all of curing our social ills. Is this to get votes, or is throwing hands in the air with total exasperation.

Canada's leap to enact mandatory minimum sentencing is a sad reflection on Canada, which someone once called, "A kinder, gentler America." Although the sentencing only applies to certain crimes, it is the start of something that can spread like wildfire. So I ask my fellow Canadians and politicians: Are you going to foot the bill for the penal colony? Hey, you can be even more American and farm out the prison business to private enterprise. Buy stock on the TSX! Why not? They've been doing it in the States for years.

Cathleen Vecchiato has been an outspoken environmentalist for many years. She is a very well recognized champion of the environment and a community activist in Langley as well as in other adjoining communities. Cathleen formed and leads the Langley Conservation Network. Editor-LFP...

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