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Lock'em Up and Throw Away the Key
G. Shawn Swarts
G. Shawn Swarts
G. Shawn Swarts
Shawn graduated with a law degree from University of Western Ontario. Shawn articled in Ottawa, specializing in criminal defence work. Since his call to the bar in 1991, he continues to practice in this area.

Recently the Harper Government has enacted legislation entitled Tackling Violent Crime or Bill C-2. Part of this legislation enacts mandatory minimum jail sentences for gun and drug related crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences takes the discretion of what an appropriate sentence would be out of the Judge's hand and imposes at the very least minimum jail sentences for specific offences regardless of the circumstances or the offender.

This raises the obvious question, does throwing people in jail work? The Conservative Harper Government in enacting this legislation is following a path set out by our neighbours to the South, the U.S. There are serious questions whether this belief in longer and harsher sentences actually works. The United States now has 2.3 million people behind bars. United States only has 5%of the world's population, but it has 25% of the world's prisoners (772 people out of every 100,000 in the U.S. are in jail). In Canada we incarcerate 116 people per 100,000 (less than 1/6 of the U.S. incarceration rate). The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world, yet its crime rate (with the exception of weapons offences) is virtually identical to that of Canada. So the policy of getting tough and locking them up does not seem to bring about a lower crime rate. What it does do is cause millions of families to be destroyed and cost billions of tax payers dollars to house these people.

This trend to increase incarceration is disturbing and unfortunately reflects an increased politicalization of the criminal process. Up until 1976 the U.S. incarceration rates were very similar to Canada. However, thirty years ago the U.S. instituted their "war on drugs and crime" policies of mandatory minimum lengthy criminal sentences for a host of offences primarily drug related, but also property and violent offences. This resulted in a dramatic six fold increase in their prison population, but no decrease in their crime rate. The one thing it did do was allow politicians to "get tough on crime". Is this the future for Canada?

As a defence lawyer I recognize people need to be punished for wrongs they have committed. However, the answer is not simply to throw away the key, the answer is to invest in the community to prevent those people from becoming criminals in the first place and secondly to invest in the person who is convicted by giving them job training, increased education and a means out of the criminal activity they have become involved in.

Regrettably, the Harper Government seems to feel, "throw away the key" is the best policy, instead of investing into helping these people not to commit crimes in the future. A simple solution to a very complicated problem.

Shawn Swarts is a partner at the law firm of Cobb & Jones, who practices primarily criminal litigation. Should you have any questions for Ask A Lawyer, please direct them to the Simcoe Reformer or ask a lawyer of your choice.

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