by: Allysa Olding

Parliament is back in session and the MPs and senators have busied themselves in intense debate, reading bills and deciding their validity, proposing amendments or outright dismissing them. As Canadians who are concerned about drug policy, we have a lot to pay attention to this February. One major policy platform being pushed by Conservatives in government which has got everybody talking is the Omnibus Crime Bill C-10 or, as the conservatives are calling it, the “Tough on Crime” Bill.

“Tough on Crime?”

The Bill itself is several major criminal code changes lumped into one, and – according to the Government of Canada website summary – creates dramatic changes to the criminal code which are intended to target organized crimes, gangs, and drug-related offences involving youth and children. “The Safe Streets and Communities Act” proposes several amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act which would impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related criminal offences. According to the Act people who produce, sell, or use illicit substances – from recreational use of cannabis, to those with serious and potentially life-threatening narcotic addictions are met with the same response: incarceration. This bill imposes more incarceration for more people, nearly eliminating judicial discretion and undermining a health-focused restorative approach to addiction and substance abuse.

But does this Bill, problematic as it is, achieve its stated goals? Will it reduce crime rates and create “safer streets and communities”? Has it been carefully formulated to combat organized crime and abuse of substances by youth? The bill has been widely criticized by both governmental and non-governmental groups, activists and academics for being unnecessary, inefficient, and economically impractical. Ultimately, the concern for activists interested in Drug Policy is related to the fact that C-10 effectively eliminates a healthcare-focused approach to addiction in lieu of merciless and unnecessary incarceration.

“What's Wrong With Bill C-10”

Well, Lots. But don't take my word for it. There is an expansive and growing body of literature being produced from groups such as Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, The Canadian Bar Association, and CSSDP have launched campaigns against elements of Bill C-10. Cogent arguments against C-10 have been given in the House by many including Glenn Thibeault, Ryan Cleary and Andrew Cash. Academics and Criminologists like Susan C. Boyd, and Paula Mallea have written critical responses to mandatory minimum sentencing in drug policy. I can only hope to graze the surface of the problems with the proposed bill C-10, and I encourage you as an activist to listen to the speeches and read the articles I have hyper-linked here. That being said, here's an introduction to some of the problems with Bill C-10.

Crime rates are actually falling not spiralling out of control as the conservatives pushing Omnibus would have you believe. In her report “Fear Factor: Stephen Harper's Tough on Crime Agenda” published with Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Paula Mallea reminds Canadians that since 1992, crime rates have been steadily declining. In 2008, the crime rate was the lowest it has been in the last 25 years. This statistic is consistent regardless of how it is measured: this includes the traditional Crime statistics gathered from police reports, statistics measuring crime severity and violent crime. Particularly, drug offences are down 6% since 2008, and youth offence rates have remained relatively stable since 1991 despite the fact that fewer youths are being incarcerated under the new Youth Criminal Justice Act. Even though the statistics affirm that the very crimes targeted by the Omnibus Crime Bill are in decline, Conservatives still assert there is a need for policy adjustments to respond to an explosion of crime which cannot be statistically substantiated. It is clear that these declarations are made to induce fear and manipulate public perception – not, as the Conservatives claim, to help improve the safety and security of communities.

Incarcerating offenders doesn't help reduce crime rates, nor do they rehabilitate offenders to reduce recidivism. Mallea points out that “evidence shows that long periods served in prison increase the chance that the offender will offend again … In the end, public security is diminished, rather than increased if we 'throw away the key'” (CCAP, 2011: 12). The old-fashioned assumptions that retribution is the primary or exclusive function of the Criminal Justice System, and that retributive justice is the correct response to behaviour considered socially deviant is simply ideological and does not reflect the reality of the causes for deviant behaviour, nor does it offer an effective solution.

C-10 will continue to overly incarcerate marginalized groups. The changes embodied in C-10 will target groups already over represented in the prison and justice system . As Ryan Cleary described to the house of commons:

“mandatory minimum sentences aren't so much tough on crime, as tough on Canadians suffering from mental illness, addiction and poverty… The bill targets youth for harsher punishment and will put more Aboriginal People[s] in prison.”

People who suffer from addictions, mental illness, and racial discrimination will be further marginalized by the criminal justice system if mandatory minimums are imposed. Additionally the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network has spoken against mandatory minimum sentencing for drug use as a dangerous practice which leads to health issues. Criticizing what was formerly Bill S-10, now included in Bill C-10, the HIV/AIDS legal network warns against treating the health problem of drug addiction primarily in terms of its criminal dimensions as deeply problematic. Patricia Allard, Deputy Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, reminded Canadians that:

“evidence shows that imprisoning people who inject drugs fans the flames of Canada's HIV epidemic. The HIV prevalence rate in Canadian prisons is at least 10 times that found in the population as a whole”

Incarcerating more people for longer periods of time will serve to exacerbate already existing health problems. As the Canadian Bar Association points out, the changes in Bill C-10 will continue to further victimize and alienate the most vulnerable populations by replacing conditional sentences for people in remote areas of Canada and relocating them far away from their families:

“People in remote rural and northern communities will be shipped far from their families to serve time. Canada's Aboriginal people already represent up to 80% of inmates in institutions in the prairies, a national embarrassment that Bill C-10 will make worse.”

If these conditional sentences are eliminated, mandatory minimum sentences will tear mothers from their families, nearly 80 percent of incarcerated women are parents to minors. This means women will be deprived of their children, it also means that an unbearable strain will be placed on Children's Aid Services who are already lacking essential funding. Susan C. Boyd, a professor currently working in British Columbia, criticized former Bill C-15 which is now included in C-10 for its harmful effect on women. You can listen to her talk about these effects on women and children by clicking here .

The proposed changes in C-10 take away funding from programs that would produce real change. Most inmates currently institutionalized within the Criminal Justice System suffer from an addiction. Many live with a mental illness. A large portion are First Nations, many are homeless, illiterate, and victims of previous abuse. These social-structural elements influence the rates of offending and correlate with who will or will not be incarcerated. The key to addressing crime rates lies in effectively remedying the structural inequalities. As the Canadian Bar Association states, it has been proven by various studies that the tactics which actually reduce crime are:

“(a)addressing child poverty, (b) providing services for the mentally ill and those afflicted with FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder], (c) diverting young offenders from the adult justice system, and (d) rehabilitating prisoners and helping them to reintegrate into society”

Bill C-10 not only ignores these tactics, but it's fiscal cost, estimated to be nearly five billion dollars, diverts much needed funding away from useful social spending. Perhaps the government should “stop wasting money on cages and start spending it on hospital beds and text books”.

What Can I Do?

Bill C-10 is already in its second reading at the Senate. Immediate action is required to stop this harmful bill from coming into force. For more information on how you can participate in action to stop mandatory minimums for drug-related offences, check out the CSSDP campaign by clicking here: