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Listen to judges on crime

If repeated Supreme Court challenges are not enough to dissuade the federal government from its largely useless campaign to put more Canadians in prison for longer and longer periods of time, what will?

Canada’s dropping crime rate hasn’t done it; that’s been a trend for longer than the Harper Conservatives have been in government. On a per capita basis, there’s less crime for the government to get tough against now than has been the case for decades.

Nor does the stupendous cost of its prison program, which government sources recognize could reach $10 billion a year by 2015.

Nor has it been the human toll of warehousing thousands of what one judge calls “broken souls” in segregation units. Up to 10 per cent of men and as many at 30 per cent of women who are sent to prison arrive there with a mental illness that makes them unfit to live in the general prison population.

Figures that Correctional Services must work with tell us that as many as 35 per cent of inmates in federal penitentiaries have mental impairments that require treatment. This includes people with serious untreated addictions, and/or brain injuries that affect behaviour, as well as people dealing with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or fetal alcohol syndrome.

Statistics Canada says that even with a new $600-million investment for special treatment beds in prisons, about a third of inmates don’t get sufficient treatment to actually help them — or don’t get any at all.

So we have Charter of Rights challenges, an exploding cost to taxpayers, a dropping crime rate and the mounting evidence of lives damaged by their policies. And if none of this works to convince the Tories to change their minds on its prison policy, what will?

Well, we’ll have to see if the actions of individual judges might.

Court justices, already grating under new laws requiring long minimum sentences for crimes that don’t often deserve them, are beginning to rebel.

One of the regulations that arrived off the get-tough omnibus bill requires that when a convict is sentenced to pay a fine in a federal court, there must be a 30 per cent surcharge to go toward services for victims of crime.

When there is no fine, there is a flat fee to be paid of either $100 or in serious cases, $200, on top of other penalties.

But as Ontario Court Justice Colin Westmore told the Globe and Mail over the weekend, the surcharge becomes absurd for perhaps half of the cases that he sees.

“Can you imagine a person who’s got a mental illness, who lives under the local underpass, at the hospital or on a park bench, who eats at the soup kitchen, and you’re going to have them pay $100 because they had their day in court?”

Besides, even if the surcharges are levied, what’s the government going to do to make them pay, form a corps of bill collectors to accost people under bridges? Or — surprise — just up the ante and have them sent to prison for contempt?

That doesn’t look like a healthy response to fears regarding our public safety.

Some judges are assessing the fines but giving convicted persons up to 99 years to repay. Other judges — including some in Alberta — are assessing fines of $1, plus the 30 per cent surcharge.

That ought to relieve a victim’s pain.

In our experience, a family member did receive compensation from the Alberta fund for victims of violence. Two city lawyers even met us in Edmonton to argue an appeal on our behalf, when our original application to the fund was assessed a token sum — at no cost.

Shortly thereafter, the province changed the rules so that payments to victims were capped at something below an amount that would provide real help to anyone — and the right to appeal was struck from the system.

So it’s not like victims of violent crime are getting that much from the fine surcharges, not in Alberta anyway. Certainly not as much as the bureaucrats the fund requires to administer it, by any stretch.

So at some point, the advertising on the crime-fighting omnibus needs to stop.

“Getting tough” on crime doesn’t work, isn’t needed, costs a fortune, may in fact violate our Charter of Rights — and in thousands of cases actually makes things worse.

A prison is the most expensive and inefficient means any government could devise to treat addictions, brain injury and mental illness. The largest group of criminals by far have little means to pay surcharges to any fund for victims of crime.

And if government expects the general populace to respect the wisdom of judges, don’t you think the government should do the same and listen to some good advice?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email



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