Vic Toews, you’re going to have to help me out on this one. I know that you’re Canada’s minister of justice, but I am having trouble understanding your logic here. Can we cut through the “tough on crime” rhetoric for a few moments and try to get some things, er, straight?
First of all, you have me a bit confused. It’s these terms you’ve been throwing around lately: “age of protection” and “age of responsibility.”
In June, you introduced legislation to raise the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 (except for gay and bisexual men, of course, who will have to wait till they’re 18 to do the nasty). You called this the “age of protection,” claiming that your move to clamp down on teen sex will save kids from all of the terrible predators out there. Now, Mr Minister, if you’ve read my column before, you know my stance on this issue (c’mon, you can admit to sneaking glances at the porn ads in the back pages of this paper–I won’t tell). I understand that you’re playing to your fans from the loony religious right, and being anti-sex scores major points.
But what I don’t understand is how all of your syrupy rhetoric about protecting children jives with your most recent proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 10 years old. As it stands, the Youth Criminal Justice Act applies to youth from 12-17. In recent statements, you have bemoaned the fact that some kids have already become hardened criminals before the age of 12, and that police can do little fix them before they ever have to face a judge for the first time.
So if I follow your line of reasoning, teens under 16 are too young to make rational decisions about sex, but 10-year-olds have the mental capacity to commit serious crimes, and therefore could get thrown in jail (where, I dare say, they would have little protection against sexual predators). Suddenly, you’re not concerned about the “age of protection” for youth.” Now, it’s the “age of responsibility.”
I guess I haven’t come into contact with any gun-toting 10 year-olds recently, but the thought of sending fourth graders to jail doesn’t seem like a particularly saccharine “family values” kind of proposal to me. Especially when you consider the other two planks of your plan to fight crime: imposing mandatory minimum sentences, and doing away with those pesky preliminary hearings.
Let’s start with a reality check. As justice minister, you know that overall, crime in Canada is in decline. In 2004 (the last year for which there are stats available), the overall crime rate was 11.8 per cent lower than in 1994. And while the homicide rate has gone up, it’s still lower than it was a decade ago. This is why it’s so puzzling to hear that you want to embark on such an extreme makeover of Canada’s criminal justice system.
I can only assume that you want to score political points. You know that the majority of Canadians watch Law & Order re-runs every night, and fear of crime has crept into our collective psyche. But if you’ve read any recent studies coming out of the US, you know that mandatory minimum sentences has done little to deter crime, and instead has led to a boom in the private prison industry. The US prison population is at two million people and climbing.
Now, I know that you like to bash “activist judges” but as minister of justice, don’t you think they should have some discretion to decide cases based on the evidence? Besides, as the good women at the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies have already reminded you, Canada already has approximately 45 mandatory minimum sentences. As that organization’s president, Dr Ailsa Watkinson explains, “Mandatory minimum sentences are seductive to citizens unfamiliar with the complexities of crime, and to politicians who want to be seen by those citizens as taking action to protect them. More mandatory minimum sentences will mean that people who are ensnared in the prison system are likely to be kept there for longer periods of time.”
Now, even if those liberal arguments about rehabilitation versus incarceration don’t sway you, perhaps the cost will. When the Conservatives eked into power in January, you were riding a wave of public outrage over government corruption and overspending. How about this cold, hard figure? It costs anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 per year to keep a person incarcerated in Canada. Federal and provincial prisons are now at 90 percent capacity, which means that if your plan goes through, governments will have to spend millions of dollars building more jails. And with your plan to do away with the preliminary hearings that determine whether or not a case has enough evidence to go to trial, Canada can expect to spend even more money on lengthy hearings that may or may not be necessary.
I guess it comes down to this in your world Mr Toews: Kids are old enough to fuck up, but not to fuck. And if they get thrown in jail, they’re just fucked.
How about those family values?