Mandatory sentences staying in crime bill, Nicholson says

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is standing by mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, despite a new warning from U.S. officials that such laws don't work.

U.S. group warns against 'costly failures' of minimum sentences for minor drug crimes

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson speaks in February, 2011 about the government's previous attempt to impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Bill C-10, currently before the Senate, would impose minimums for marijuana possession. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is standing by mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, despite a new warning that such laws don't work.

Nicholson said the law, which includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, is "very targeted."

"We develop our criminal law legislation looking at the experiences from around the world, from Britain and other countries," Nicholson said at a news conference Wednesday in Regina.

"But again, ours is a Canadian solution to Canadian issues and we make no apology for that."

The comments came after an attorney who helped U.S. politicians write mandatory minimum sentencing laws during the 1980s issued a warning for Canadian parliamentarians.

Eric E. Sterling, who once served as counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said imposing long jail terms for minor drug offences has been a mistake in the U.S. and won't work in Canada.


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"When you start going down this road of building more prisons and sending people away for long periods of time, and you convince yourself that this is going to deter people, you've made a colossal mistake," said Sterling, who is now the president of the Maryland-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

"We have learned the hard way that long sentences are not deterring people from selling drugs when the profits are so great."

Sterling is one of 28 current and former law enforcement officials in the U.S. who have written to Canadian senators, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the premiers. They take issue with Bill C-10, known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which includes mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and is currently being studied in the Senate.

The letter, written by the organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is the latest salvo in the dispute over Bill C-10, as well as the debate over the legalization of marijuana.

Earlier this month, four former B.C. attorneys general made a similar argument, saying marijuana prohibition is fuelling gang wars and clogging the courts.

This week, Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, criticized the bill, telling a Senate committee that intervention and rehabilitation, not incarceration, is the right approach for aboriginal peoples.

Despite the ongoing and continued pressure, the Conservative government said it has no intention of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

'Costly failures'

In their letter, the law enforcement officials argue that mandatory minimum sentences have been "costly failures" in the U.S. and have led to greater organized crime and gang violence, corruption and social decay.

"These policies have bankrupted state budgets as limited tax dollars pay to imprison non-violent drug offenders at record rates instead of programs that can actually improve community safety," the organization writes.

In fact, Sterling said when the U.S. wrote its mandatory minimum laws in 1986, about 36,000 people were locked up in federal prisons. He said that number has now jumped to about 200,000.

"Probably we have on the order of half a million Americans behind bars on drug charges nationwide," he said, after taking into account those who are serving time in state prisons, too.

If it costs $25,000 to incarcerate an individual in a U.S. prison annually, then the country is spending billions of dollars locking up people for drug offences, added Sterling.

The organization calls on Canadian politicians to endorse the taxation and regulation of marijuana.

After all, it says the U.S. is becoming more progressive with its pot laws, noting 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted medical marijuana laws and 14 states have taken steps to decriminalize possession.

"We changed our minds and we encourage you to do the same," the group writes.

"Taxation and regulation of marijuana have the potential to dramatically improve community safety, raise tax revenue for cash-starved governments and allow precious law enforcement resources to be directed towards criminal activities where law enforcement actually reduced crime."

The 28 signatories include former and current police chiefs, border, customs and immigration agents, judges, prosecutors, correctional officials, law enforcement officers, and legislative counsel.

Nicholson said Wednesday that he hasn't read the letter, but insisted the government will move forward.

"Over the years there has been introduced mandatory penalties by different governments. I think there's about 40 of them in the criminal code, so they're nothing new to this government," he said.

"But I believe they send out the right message to individuals that if you start bringing, for instance, drugs into this country, if you're into the business of trafficking, there will be a price to pay and you'll be going to jail."