Liberals' policy change linked to gun survey
CanWest News Service
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
OTTAWA — The federal government's pledge to impose automatic jail terms for gun crimes comes in the wake of a survey conducted for the Justice Department indicating that a strong majority of Canadians favour minimum mandatory sentences for certain weapons offences.
The survey, conducted last March by Decima Research, showed as many as 82% of Canadians think people who use guns to commit crimes should go to jail.
Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who previously balked at minimum mandatory jail terms, said last week he wanted to introduce Criminal Code changes as soon as possible. His about-face on minimum sentences — which came with an admission he is not convinced that automatic jail terms work — has sparked accusations that the Liberals are using mandatory sentences for political gain as they try to appeal to law-and-order-minded voters heading into a federal election.
Mr. Cotler balked at implementing automatic jail terms in the past because he said they eliminate flexibility for judges to impose the sentences they see fit.
"It all points to political expediency, unfortunately," said Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob said the Liberal plan would do more harm than good because studies have repeatedly shown that minimum mandatory sentences do not deter crime.
"It's worse than useless because if this is a real problem, and gun crimes clearly are a real problem, what it does is distracts people and makes them feel that the problem is addressed," Mr. Doob said.
"It's like saying you're going to address cancer by telling people to eat leafy vegetables. It's not going to solve your cancer, but if [you] believe that it will, then maybe you don't do other kinds of treatment."
The Liberals, under pressure from several provinces, particularly Ontario, say they want to propose new minimum penalties for firearms smuggling, trafficking and illegal possession of handguns in a public place. Minimum sentences are rare in Canada, existing only for murder and several crimes involving firearms.
The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, an advocacy group for women prisoners, wrote Mr. Cotler last week reminding him that several U.S. jurisdictions are backing away from minimum mandatory sentences because they have failed.
A crackdown on gun violence vaulted onto the Liberal agenda this summer, when violence on Toronto streets began to make Liberal MPs in the party's long-time stronghold nervous that Prime Minister Paul Martin's fragile minority government was not doing enough.
The Justice Department survey is also fodder for the Liberal plan. The polling firm found that an overwhelming majority of Canadians support minimum mandatory jail terms for two gun crimes: robbery with a firearm and criminal negligence causing death with a firearm.
Support for mandatory jail terms for robbery with a firearm was as high as 82%, compared with 14% who opposed the prospect. Support was higher among a group of respondents who were asked the question after hearing about an anecdotal case of robbery with a firearm.
Conditional sentences are only available to offenders sentenced to less than two years for a crime that does not carry a minimum mandatory sentence.
The survey of 2,343 Canadians has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, 95% of the time.
© National Post 2005