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Ontario Should Commit Sociology to Combat Harper's Crime Agenda

The Ontario government should not be afraid to resist Harper's misguided crime agenda. Instead of selling out another generation for political expediency, Ontario should commit the crime that Harper fears the most: sociology.
CP, Alamy

That the Conservative federal government has no regard for evidence, science, or sociology was evident long before PM Harper's proclamation that he does not want to "commit sociology."

The proof lies in the spate of "law and order" crime bills that has been enacted by the federal government over the past few years. With each new law, the Conservatives have dismissed as irrelevant the irrefutable evidence that confirms: harsher prison sentences waste public money without making us any safer. In fact, incarceration often leads to more crime and further community breakdown.

Harper is prepared to cynically capitalize on the short-term political gains his law and order policies garner, despite the negative consequences to society. Those who seek a more effective, humane justice system must turn elsewhere, to the Ontario government.

Why should the provincial government take the kind of action that may be unpopular in this "crime and punishment" environment?

For one thing, Harper's crime bills are fiscally irresponsible. The provinces will be footing most of the bill for more prison beds and guards and untreated mental health and addiction issues. These costs are easily measured in the billions.

Secondly, as a result of new mandatory minimum sentences and fewer conditional sentences, trials are likely to be longer, with fewer guilty pleas. The resulting strain on jails, courts, and legal aid undermine access to justice -- both for those charged and victims of crime.

Thirdly, the federal crime bills are a risk to public safety. People who have been imprisoned are more likely to re-offend upon release when compared to those who received less intrusive sentences, such as probation.

The provincial government has a duty to promote effective, evidence-based policies that will make all Ontarians safer in the long run.

Indeed, Premier Kathleen Wynn has promised us a "fair" and "prosperous" Ontario. We urge her and Attorney General John Gerretsen to take the following steps to bring Ontario's criminal justice system in line with this promise.

1) Ontario should start by following Quebec's lead. In response to the Safe Streets and Communities Act's emphasis on punishment for young persons, in October 2012, Quebec's Attorney General directed prosecutors to continue to focus on rehabilitation and reintegration. Even short-term incarceration of young people imperils their future success at school, increases the likelihood of re-offending, lowers their chances of securing meaningful jobs, and will ultimately be more costly to society. Investing in the well-being, education and life skills of young people is the only way to ensure healthier adults and communities in the future.

2) Ontario should support the existing and any future challenges to the new "mandatory minimum sentences." Lengthy and mandatory jail time for many first-time convictions violates the Charter guarantee to be free from cruel and unusual treatment. The Ontario government should ensure that Ontarians do not bear the financial burden for defending unjustified laws that clearly violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

3) Ontario's Attorney General should direct its Crown Attorneys to reduce their reliance on pre-trial detention. Our remand centres are overcrowded, costly and provide none of the services that are essential to rehabilitation and reintegration.

4) Crown Attorneys should increase their of use restorative justice, from the time of arrest through to sentencing. Restorative justice processes promote healing, instil a greater sense of safety, and reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for victims more effectively than the traditional court system. They also reduce recidivism, a fact acknowledged by Canada's Department of Public Safety.

5) Crown Attorneys should consider proceeding summarily as often as possible, to lessen the negative impact of high mandatory minimums.

6) Ontario must take an integrated approach to crime prevention and reduction. It must commit to more vigorous poverty-reduction and health-promotion policies, and must address rising inequality, which has been linked with a rise in violent crime. Furthermore, collaborative conflict resolution must become an integral part of our education system. Teachers and students must be trained in it

7) When the Conservative government's Bill C-54 becomes law, Crown Attorneys will be able to ask the courts to designate certain persons found to be "not criminally responsible" as "high risk." With access to a review only every three years, such persons may be held in psychiatric facilities years after the Ontario Review Board has determined that they are no longer a threat. Our already over-burdened psychiatric facilities will have fewer beds and services available for other prisoners who need them, because these beds will be taken up by people who don't need them.

If this irrational bill becomes law, the Attorney General should direct Crown Attorneys not to seek "high risk" designations.

8) Finally, our provincial government must actively educate the public on sentencing options, recidivism rates, the advantages of restorative justice, and the best ways of preventing and reducing crime, in the first place. A well-informed public will support policies that will make all Ontarians safer.

Surely the above are a more sound investment of public funds.

The Ontario government should not be afraid to resist Harper's misguided crime agenda. Instead of selling out another generation for political expediency, Ontario should commit the crime that Harper fears the most: sociology.

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