New reports on crime data show that while the tough-on-crime era is winding down in the United States, it is just beginning in Canada. Just last week, Canada’s auditor general issued a warning about overcrowded prisons in this era of stricter jail terms.
In the U.S., data has shown that prison populations are actually receding. This change shows a shift from a long trend that previously put the U.S. at the top of the incarceration list. Theyhad more than two million prisoners. The National Research Council credits changing drug laws for this shift, which resulted in changing the U.S. from a country with normal incarceration levels, to one that is estimated to be six times higher than that of Canada.
With increasing incarceration, came increasing correction spending, whichrose from 1.9 per cent to 3.3 per cent. This is a surge in spending of about 400 per cent.
While Canada is adding tougher laws and mandatory minimum sentences to its Criminal Code, the data from the U.S. recommended removing them as the tougher laws did not show much improvement in crime rates in the United States. While they may have contributed to a decrease, the amount is minimal. U.S. congress is reviewing and considering some softer crime measures with relaxed drug laws. This trend in law making has political backing from both the right and the left.
Even though Canada is considering being tougher with their laws, and the U.S. is considering going softer, the U.S. still has more severe drug laws. A maximum penalty for cocaine trafficking in Canada could be life imprisonment; however, sentences of one or two years could apply. In the U.S., carrying five kilos of cocaine is automatically a 10-year to life sentence for the first offence.
A pro-reform organization’s website tells a few stories about lives ruined by the tougher U.S. drug penalties. One story illustrates the life of a rap producer who was sentenced to a 55-year minimum sentence for selling marijuana while possessing a gun. One man was given a life sentence for pocketing $1,500 when introducing two people for a drug transaction.
A recent poll in the United States, by the Pew Research Center, discovered that 67 per cent thought the government should treat those involved with drugs instead of resorting to prosecution. In 1990, 73 per cent of citizens agreed with the aggressive view that major drug traffickers deserved the death penalty.
Politicians are paying attention to this shift in public opinion. In many states, Congress is considering bills that could change mandatory minimums and examine the option for early release for low-risk prisoners. In 2010, a bill was also passed lowering penalties for crack and cocaine possession.
Influential personalities such as Rupert Murdoch, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush have shared their opinion that the tougher drug laws are wasteful and not necessary. Conrad Black, an advocate for justice reform, said that many Americans are realizing the incredible cost of their tough crime policies.
The jury is still out for if Canada will take notes from the lessons the United States has learned, or if they will go ahead with their tough on crime changes.