Tough on crime: the latest trend in Canada, but going out of style in the U.S.

The general inmate facility is shown during a media tour of the Toronto South Detention Centre in Toronto on Oct. 3, 2013. A pair of newly released reports show two countries inching in opposite directions on law and order, with Canada gearing up for an era of tougher sentencing just as the United States’ winds down. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON - A pair of newly released reports show two countries moving in opposite directions on law and order: Canada gearing up for stricter sentencing laws just as the tough-on-crime era winds down in the United States.

Canada’s auditor general issued a warning last week about increasingly overcrowded prisons in an era of stiffer jail terms.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., these are tough times to be tough on crime. The prison population actually receded in the U.S. in recent years, a new study shows — a dramatic shift from a decades-long trend that made America the undisputed world leader in incarceration with more than two million prisoners, or one-quarter of the entire international total.

The National Research Council study explained how drug laws turned the U.S. from a country with normal incarceration levels to a place with imprisonment rates six times higher than Canada’s.

Three per cent of American children now have a parent behind bars, and the impact has been especially devastating in the black community — which has six times more people imprisoned than whites.

The cost: U.S. corrections spending increased from 1.9 per cent to 3.3 per cent of state budgets since 1985, rising from US$6.7 billion to $53.2 billion. Adjusted for inflation, states’ combined corrections spending increased by just over 400 per cent, while the number of prisoners increased by 475 per cent.

So what did Americans get for their money? Not much, according to the study, which concludes that the policies might have contributed to an overall decrease in crime, but not significantly.

As Canada adds mandatory minimum sentences to its Criminal Code, the U.S. study recommends doing away with them.

Congress is considering a handful of softer-on-crime measures, while since 2009, some 40 U.S. states have relaxed their drug laws. The trend has broad political backing — not only from the left, but also from different wings of the Republican party, including potential 2016 presidential candidates Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.

Media barons past and present are weighing in, too.

Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch said last week that nobody should spend more than six months in prison for crack possession. Closer to home, Conrad Black, who became a vocal advocate of justice reform after his stay in a U.S. prison, said Americans are waking up to the back-breaking cost of their crime policies.

In an email exchange, the former newspaper owner blamed “rabid law and order demogogues,” “political weaklings and cowards,” and “judges who are just prosecutors” for enabling the law-enforcement industry over the years.

He called for a variety of reforms ranging from better legal aid, and letting the defence speak last in court cases, to reducing or completely eliminating prison sentences for non-violent people.

And he urged Canada to steer clear of the recent U.S. model.

“It is a completely rotten system and the Canadian emulation of it, with reduction of rehabilitative features and physical separation of prisoners from family visitors, and the certainty that native people will be the chief occupants of these new prisons, is insane and reprehensible,” Black said.

“Vic Toews and Julian Fantino-nation,” he added, in reference to past and present federal cabinet ministers. “God help us.”

However, when it comes to severity of punishment, Canada is still not even close to the U.S.

In Canada, the maximum penalty for cocaine trafficking might be life imprisonment — but mandatory minimum sentences of one and two years would apply only if the crime was committed within a gang or near a school. Compare that to the U.S., where carrying five kilos of cocaine is an automatic 10 years to life in prison for a first offence, and 20 years to life for a second offence.

One pro-reform organization offers a series of horror stories on its website about lives ruined by U.S. drug penalties.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums describes a Utah rap producer who sold a few pounds of marijuana while in possession of a gun; he’s now serving a 55-year minimum sentence.

There’s a football player at Southern University who made $1,500 for introducing two people for a drug transaction. The penalty? Life in prison. He received a presidential commutation in 2013 and was released after two decades locked away.

But attitudes are shifting quickly.

In a U.S. poll released last month, the Pew Research Center found 67 per cent agreeing that government should focus more on treating people who use illegal drugs, compared with 26 per cent who said prosecution should be the focus.

Compare that to 1990, when 73 per cent of respondents to a similar poll said they favoured a mandatory death penalty for “major drug traffickers.”

The politicians are taking note.

In addition to reforms in dozens of states, the U.S. Congress is weighing bills with bipartisan support that would reduce mandatory minimums and allow early release for low-risk prisoners.

Congress also passed a 2010 bill that significantly narrowed the drastic disparity between penalties for cocaine and crack possession.

Attorney General Eric Holder has also instructed federal prosecutors to prosecute drug offences more leniently, and called on states to stop removing voting rights from ex-convicts.

Up north, the conversation is on different track.

Canada’s federal prison population has increased about seven per cent since 2009, with a similar rate of growth forecast for the next few years.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson reported last week that half of Canada’s federal penitentiaries were running at, or above, their rated capacities.

The Harper government has added mandatory minimums through five major pieces of legislation, related to drugs, gang activity, white-collar crime and property theft. Some of them are under attack, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case where mandatory minimums were tossed out for some gun crimes.

The government says it’s committed to the tougher approach.

“For certain offences, our government firmly believes that a minimum period of incarceration is justified,” said an email from the office of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

“Canadians lose faith in the criminal justice system when they feel that the punishment does not fit the crime.”

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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