A couple of weeks ago (November 18-25) was Restorative Justice Week in Canada. This is a week Correctional Services Canada and the Canadian Government has selected to recognize the importance of and promote Restorative Justice in Canada. Restorative Justice can be defined as: finding peaceful and collaborative ways of addressing crime and resolving conflict in our society while promoting recognition of harm, voluntary participation, inclusion, safety, and facilitated dialogue. The idea of restorative justice (as it relates to the criminal justice system) is to provide a way for offenders to make amends for their crime in an effort to help them further understand the full impact and scope of how their actions have affected others in their community. The other, more common option in dealing with crime is to incarcerate the offender for a set period of time based on the seriousness of the offense at the expense of taxpayers, and quite often also to the detriment of the offender.
Restorative Justice week, which this year has the theme attached to it of ‘Diverse Needs; Unique Responses,’ comes at a time when we are in the midst of a crucial turning point in the future of the Canadian Justice System. Bill C-10, otherwise known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act was passed in March of 2012, and recently the laws targeting ‘serious’ drug crimes came into effect (on November 6, 2012). While the full scope of Bill C-10 refers to unrelated issues other than just drug crimes (such as increasing penalties for sexual offenses against children), the implications of this Bill are sure to change the face of what criminal justice looks like in Canada. Numerous aspects of this bill have been the source
of much controversy since being introduced. There are many accounts during the debate of this bill of expert witnesses being cut-off from speaking mid-sentence after being given only 5 or so minutes to speak about the extremely complicated, multi-faceted issues that this bill attempts to address. There have also been allegations of the bill not properly being inspected or researched, with certain parts of it having previously been studied and amended to fit the findings of the research, only to have these changes taken out and the bill being passed in its original, unrealistic and uncompromising state.
When holding the implications of Bill C-10 up against the spirit of Restorative Justice week, many contradictions quickly come to light. First off, the passing of the laws contained in C-10 guarantee that more Canadians (many of them youth) will be put in jail for longer terms, often for less serious (non-violent) crimes. It removes much of the leeway that judges have in using their own judgment when dealing with certain offenses by imposing mandatory minimum sentences, as well as bringing into effect harsher sentencing principles and increasing wait times before individuals can apply for pardons. These are just a few of the many implications the passing of this bills holds, all of which are directly opposed to the spirit and idea of restorative justice in Canada. The concept of restorative justice is based on the idea that the punishment for an offense should in some way relate to the crime, and if possible, should give the offender the chance to make right what they have done wrong. The nature of Bill C-10 denies this foundational principle. C-10 does not seek to rehabilitate individuals and shows very little interest in deterring crime, but instead seeks to lock more people up for longer periods of time at the expense of Canadian taxpayers. It is also important to mention that there were some changes made to the Drug Treatment Court program, and that in some ways, the changes made (for example, admitting that relapses in drug use are common and a reality of drug addiction treatment) show at least a tiny glimpse of harm-reduction attitudes seeping into legislation.
As countless studies have shown, the real way to prevent crime in any society is with prevention strategies: Outreach, education and creating opportunity for people so they are not put in a position where breaking laws and committing crimes are an attractive option. What has also been proven in many different arenas is that introducing harsher penalties and stricter sentencing guidelines does not deter anyone from breaking laws, but simply increases the number of offenders any given justice system is forced to deal with. In ignoring these simple facts, the Canadian Government is guaranteeing a bleak future for many (mainly young) Canadians who are at-risk of becoming offenders, and in the process, ignoring the very essence of what Restorative Justice Week is all about, as it fails to recognize the diverse needs of Canadian offenders while providing little or no opportunity for a unique response.
What You Should Know
Bill C-10 called for amendments to The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, among many other things. Here's what you should know:
- Imposed mandatory minimum penalties for ‘dealers (VERY vague & broadly defined), repeat offenders or people who are carrying both drugs and weapons’ as well as anyone involved in ‘organized crime’ (organized crime being defined as a group of three or more people who commit a crime for material gain) – these are referred to in the legislation as ‘aggravating factors’.
- Minimum two year sentences now imposed for anyone caught committing a (drug related) offense ‘in or near a school, on or near school grounds, or in or near any other public place usually frequented by persons under the age of 18’ (this could be almost ANYWHERE. Again, very vague).
- Minimum sentence of 6 months for growing 6 marijuana plants. The intent to distribute must be proven, but distribution includes giving a small amount to or sharing a joint with a friend. This increases to 9 months if the person is renting their residence.
- Minimum sentence of 18 months for making cannabis oil, hashish, or edible products, such as cookies or brownies,. This puts a great number of medicinal cannabis users who use these products instead of smoking at risk.
- MDMA, a substance used in the drug "ecstasy‟ rescheduled. This makes ecstasy, a drug used predominantly by young people, a schedule 1 drug along with heroin and cocaine (increasing the penalty for possession). This also means that anyone sharing ecstasy could face automatic jail time under Bill S-10.
- Drug "trafficking‟ includes selling, but it also includes passing, giving and sharing. This blurry line between "dealer‟ and "user‟ quickly becomes dangerous as people now defined as "dealers‟ under Bill S-10 face automatic prison time, even for a first offence.
- The Courts may choose not to impose a mandatory sentence, if the offender completes a Drug Treatment Court (DTC) program
- The Drug Treatment Court Program facilitates the treatment of drug offenders by providing an intensive, court-monitored alternative to incarceration. It is said that drug treatment courts have a more humane approach to addressing minor drug crimes than incarceration – read more about the DTC Program here
- A 2002 Canadian Department of Justice report concluded that mandatory minimum sentences (MMS) are the least effective strategy in combating drug offences, and further research has shown that a greater focus on criminal enforcement to address drug crime leads to higher levels of violence in those communities
- Mandatory-sentencing policies have produced record incarceration rates of non-violent drug users in the United States.
The repercussions of Bill C-10 are simple; people caught and charged with possession of illegal substances are now MUCH more likely to go to jail. Even first time offenders. This creates a drain on tax dollars to lock more people up for longer periods of time, but also stops each offender from contributing to society (paying taxes, community service as well as contributing in other ways such as creating art and pursuing meaningful relationships). It is also likely that a large number of these young offenders will come out of prison having become a more jaded and hardened individual who is more likely to commit another crime. Harsher penalties also discourage ‘Mom and Pop’ type shops from continuing to offend, leaving more opportunity for organized crime to take over which can lead to more violence in competition for customers/territory.
Read the entire Bill C-10 legislation here
*Thanks to the CSSDP (Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy) for some of the information listed above
Educate & Protect Yourself - Know Your Rights
It is very important to know your rights, and know your options should you run into trouble with the law. Below are some links to obtaining legal information/legal counsel in Toronto:
- The Central Toronto Community Health Centres (168 Bathurst St.): 416-703-8482 (has a youth lawyer in every Tuesday afternoon from 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM that is available on a drop-in basis for helping you sort out your legal troubles.)
- Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) www.cleo.on.ca (provides online information and materials about legal rights in many areas i.e. youth justice, immigration, language, social assistance, employment, health)
- Justice for Children and Youth: 1-866-999-5239 | www.jfcy.org (offers summary legal advice, information and assistance to young people, legal representation for low income youth in conflict with legal, educational, social service or mental health systems, among other things)
- Ontario Women’s Justice Network (OWJN): www.owjn.org (online information for women and youth on the law)
- Downtown Legal Services: 416-934-4535 (For assistance with criminal matters among other things)