'Tough on crime' approach won't work: N.W.T. judge

Canada's political leaders need a reality check if they think putting more people in jail will reduce crime, according to the Northwest Territories' senior judge.

Canada's political leaders need a reality check if they think putting more people in jail will reduce crime, according to the Northwest Territories' senior judge.

N.W.T. Supreme Court Justice John Vertes said he has seen the severity and frequency of violent crime increase over the past decade, while the territory has one of the highest incarceration rates in Canada.

Vertes, who is retiring at the end of this month, said he questions the federal Conservative government's belief that tougher jail sentences will address the root causes of violence.

"If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, well this is a pretty insane way of going about it," Vertes told CBC News in an interview that aired Tuesday.

"Anybody who thinks that just sending more people away for longer periods of time in prison will solve the social problems that lead to most of our crime is deluding themselves."

Minimum sentences proposed

Crime legislation has been a mainstay of the Conservatives' platform. In the recent federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to bundle 11 crime-related bills and pass them within 100 sitting days if elected with a majority government.

Those bills could include a proposal to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offences, such as impaired driving and some drug charges.

On Monday, the Justice Minister Rob Nicholson re-introduced a standalone bill to speed up "mega-trials"  and make them more efficient.

Nicholson said it is up to judges to interpret the government's crime legislation, including any laws for minimum or maximum sentences.

"We have a responsibility as parliamentarians to set guidelines for the courts," Nicholson told reporters in Ottawa.

Mental health services needed: Vertes

But Vertes, who has worked in the northern justice system for the past 34 years, said money needs to be spent on improving living conditions, education and employment options, not on putting people behind bars for longer periods.

Vertes said northern communities also need more resources to deal with addictions and mental illness. Many aboriginal people face lingering trauma from the residential school experience, and fetal alcohol syndrome is prevalent in the territory, he said.

"I don't think people have a clue about how prevalent that may be, but we see it in the courts. We know that many of the people that come into the courts are suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse issues, probably the legacy of fetal alcohol syndrome," he said.

"But yet we don't have the diagnostic tools here in the Northwest Territories to identify them and to deal with them in an appropriate basis."

Corrections officials in Nunavut  told CBC News last month that any minimum sentencing laws that are passed could overwhelm that territory's jails.