Friday, May 21, 2010
Liberals re-thinking support for drug sentencing laws
OTTAWA — The opposition Liberals say they are rethinking their support for a federal bill on mandatory jail terms for drug crimes, after they voted with the Conservative government to pass the proposed legislation last year for fear of being labelled as soft on crime.
The drug-sentencing bill, which for the first time would impose incarceration terms of at least six months for growing six or more marijuana plants and one year or longer for selling drugs, died when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in December.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson resurrected his proposed legislation this month.
Liberal MP Brian Murphy, co-chair of the House of Commons justice committee, said the party's continued support for the widely criticized bill is not "a sure bet." He said the Liberals want more information about the effect that automatic jail terms for drug-related crimes would have on young people.
The party also questions whether the initiative is worth the anticipated cost of jailing more people for longer.
"Maybe there is an argument that the law, as written, is a little too harsh," said Murphy, chair of the Liberal caucus legislative committee, which is contemplating its strategy.
"As time goes by, there's a lingering doubt about whether this incarceration program of Rob Nicholson's works and whether the cost is worth it."
The drug bill sailed through the Commons in June 2009 after the Liberals teamed up with the Conservatives, despite grumbling within Grit ranks that they were being told to support a bad bill so they wouldn't be accused of being soft on crime. The Bloc Quebecois and NDP voted against the bill.
Mark Holland, the Liberal public safety critic, said he does not regret voting for the drug-sentencing bill last year, but added the opposition should go back to the drawing board in light of new revelations that another law-and-order initiative is expected to cost billions by imprisoning offenders for longer.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has acknowledged that the new Truth in Sentencing Act, which eliminates judicial discretion to give offenders a two-for-one credit to compensate for time spent in pre-sentence custody, will cost about $2 billion over five years.
"I think we have look very critically at other bills and ask the question of whether that's the best way to be spending billions of dollars," said Holland.
"What is the impact going to be on other services at a time when the Conservatives are running a more than $40-billion deficit? These prisons become a giant vacuum that sucks up everything else."
By sending more prisoners to already overcrowded prisons and jails, the government will create "crime factories" that will turn young people into hardened criminals, Holland said.
He acknowledged that one reason the Liberals supported the bill last time around was that Harper had threatened an election if the opposition did not support his crime initiatives.
The drug-sentencing bill easily cleared the Commons despite being lambasted by 13 of the 16 witnesses who appeared before the justice committee during public hearings this spring.
Several opponents warned that the proposed legislation would fill jails with addicts and young people rather than drug kingpins, who would continue to thrive while small-time dealers are knocked out of commission.
The Conservatives have defended their bill as a necessary tool to fight organized crime by sending the message that drug criminals will be treated harshly.
The Senate, which considered the bill last fall, increased the threshold for automatic incarceration to 200 marijuana plants, but left it at six in cases involving aggravating factors, such as growing in a dwelling owned by another party.
Nicholson ignored the amendments and revived the bill that was passed by MPs.
The legislation comes at a time when several American states have retreated from mandatory minimum sentences, saying they are a glaring symbol of the failed U.S. war on drugs.
The United States experience in the last 25 years has shown that mandatory minimum sentences have flooded jails, with a disproportionate effect on drug addicts, the poor, the young, blacks and other minorities.
The proposed legislation would impose one-year mandatory jail time for marijuana dealing, when it is linked to organized crime or a weapon is involved.
The sentence would be increased to two years for dealing drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine to young people, or pushing drugs near a school or other places frequented by youths.