Mandatory minimum sentences and gun violence are in the headlines this week.
As reported by The Canadian Press yesterday, gun violence in Toronto once prompted Ottawa to enact stiffer mandatory minimum sentences and government lawyers now raise the recent gun deaths of four Toronto-area boys as those penalties undergo a major test.
You see, Ontario’s Appeal Court is hearing six gun-crime cases jointly this week since all of the appeals centre on controversial mandatory minimums. Crown attorneys for both the federal and provincial governments were the first to make arguments before the special five-judge panel in a courtroom packed with two dozen lawyers.
The hearings. we’re told, are focusing on the three-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a loaded illegal gun. The law was enacted in 2008 as part of the federal Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill, but was first proposed in response to a spate of gun violence in Toronto in 2005.
While Ontario has carriage of the cases, the federal government is intervening in the case and said in court documents filed before the hearings that Parliament is entitled to deference in how it tries to enhance public safety.
And we couldn’t agree more. The public, in general, is tired of what it sees as weak-kneed judges and a revolving-door justice system.
So the feds decided the best route to correct that and keep society safe was to take some options out of the judges’ hands.
And then you have the John Howard Society of Manitoba.
In a recent Winnipeg Free Press column, JHS provincial executive director John Hutton chastised Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, for calling on the province to continue building more jails as a response to jail overcrowding. According to Gawronsky, Manitoba jails were built to accommodate 2,000 inmates, and currently house about 2,600 on any given day. Gawronsky predicts jail populations could double over the next 10 years to 5,000, which would mean 3,000 inmates more than the correctional centres were designed to hold.
Ironically, that prediction might actually be on the low side, as it does not take into account new minimum-sentencing laws and restrictions on community sentences that are just now taking effect.
While we agree with Hutton that throwing money at the problem by building more jails ad infinitum isn’t the best or most financially manageable long-term solution, we disagree with his call to simply reduce the number of people going into jail.
Last year, the province’s adult capacity review committee made a number of recommendations for responding to the overcrowding crisis, which have only just been made public, Hutton wrote.
Instead of calling on the province to keep building more jail cells, the committee found the province needs to take concrete steps to reduce the number of people going into jail. To use the analogy of an overflowing sink, Hutton wrote, what’s needed is not a bigger sink, but ways to reduce the amount of water the sink has to hold.
One solution Hutton believes needs further exploration is non-compliance with conditions of bail or probation. A great number of those currently behind bars are there because they missed an appointment, drank or used drugs when they weren’t supposed to or talked to someone they weren’t supposed to contact. Failing to comply with a condition, says Hutton, needs to be taken seriously.
But he wonders if it requires the individual to be returned to custody?
We say it does. How many crimes are committed by people out on bail or probation? And even the smallest breach is a sign the offender isn’t taking the law seriously.
And that failure to comply with even one condition could snowball into something far more serious. So for now, the solution must be to lock up offenders — either by mandatory minimum sentences or by violating a judges direct order — in a humane fashion.
If that requires more and bigger jails until the crooks, cons and accused get the message, so be it.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 21, 2013