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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Harper on Mandatory Minimums

A few days ago a CP article reported that the government of Canada is ignoring taxpayer research that shows that mandatory minimums do not work. This issue was brought up in Prime Minister Harper’s recent “YouTube interview.”

This question is from Chris in Waterloo, and he writes, “Since research has shown that mandatory minimum sentencing does not deter future crime, what makes you as the Prime Minister believe this is still an effective way of persecuting criminals?”

Harper responds that a majority of Canadians support mandatory minimums, which really has little to do with the question. If a majority of Canadians think that gravity is a myth, we still won’t be able to fly. He then goes on to say that the current system is broken. This still does not answer the question. Even if the current system is broken, why replace a broken system with something that is likely to be also broken?

He then says this:

But we do think it’s very important that the criminal justice system send a strong message that such behaviour is not acceptable, and that it be appropriately punished, and that those who engage in such behaviour understand what the likelihood of punishment actually is.
This does not so much ignore the question as it ignores the premise of the question. The point is that evidence from across the world has shown that mandatory minimums do not work to deter criminals. To then say that it represents a ‘strong message’ is foolish; if it was a ‘strong message’ then criminals would be deterred.

The Prime Minister ends his answer with this statement:

I think…I’m not an expert in this area, but I think the evidence suggests it isn’t the length of the punishment that matters; it’s the certainty of the punishment. And if there’s no certainty you’ll be punished, then no possible penalty will matter. So that’s why we think it’s important to actually have a minimum penalty for serious crimes.

I agree that certainty of punishment is a good theoretical goal. The problem is that this goal is impossible. Criminals do not always get caught. If they are caught there is not always sufficient evidence to convict. This means that every criminal knows he has a chance to get away with it. Mandatory minimums do nothing to change the perception and the reality that often crime does in fact pay.

Mr. Harper did not really address the question of why policy is not being evidence driven. He had an opportunity to refute the evidence or even reject the premise of the question (as he did in an earlier question regarding the seal hunt). He did neither of these things. I leave you to speculate why.


Here's a video clip of this portion of the interview:

Posted by Hugh MacIntyre on March 17, 2010 | Permalink


So basically he's doing it because it will win him votes. I know politicians think like that, but at least decency compels them to be less brazen about it.

Posted by: Publius | 2010-03-17 5:46:55 AM

Good God! Can't even spell "mandatory" correctly :-)

Posted by: Anonymous | 2010-03-17 6:31:02 AM

Actually, Hugh, mandatory minimums would work if the case ever made it to a conviction. But most cases are plead out for vastly reduced sentences instead of going to trial. The courts prefer it that way; it's less work for them, and also less costly for both Crown and Defence.

Think about it: People...who are in prison...are not elsewhere...at the same moment...committing crimes. Unless, of course, you can provide proof that if you lock criminals away for longer stretches, reducing recidivism, that other people, who would not otherwise become criminals, then do so, just to keep the numbers up.

America's crime rate is in free fall, and it is not a coincidence that this happened when she began locking up her worst offenders for longer stretches. But you go on and continue your hate-on against Harper for dumping libertarians from the tent a couple years ago, because no one who frequents this board is under any illusions that this is about anything else.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-03-17 6:43:44 AM


You can see that I did spell it right several times. But thanks for pointing out the mistake anyway.


I don't dispise Mr. Harper for puring libertarians. I despise him because he is not the sort of Prime Minister he always said he would be.

Posted by: Hugh MacIntyre | 2010-03-17 7:34:32 AM

The word is "purging," Hugh, not "puring." (At least, it is if you meant what I think you meant.)

As for despising him for not being who he said he would be, how does that make him different from any other Prime Minister? I'm sure he'd love to take a more traditionally conservative approach, but is hobbled by a very restive (and resentful) minority government. Remember he initially resisted the stimulus package, caving only at the prospect of Coup 1.0, which would have ousted him and then spent the money anyway? Most likely in traditional Liberal/Bloc ridings?

You're too old to be an idealist, Hugh. Unless you're under twenty-one.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-03-17 7:57:37 AM

Lets be honest here, if your wealthy and can afford a good lawyer, you stand a far better chance of avoiding any sentence. The mandatory mins won't change that. The lawyers are probably drooling at the thought. As usual, the peasants will take it up the hoop. Harper pretends like the second you are charged, you will get jail time. If you have enough cash, there is no "certainty", as he puts it.

Posted by: Steve Bottrell | 2010-03-17 8:39:19 AM

As Shane indicated the bigger problem is the revolving door "justice" system where so many serve no sentence. A minimum mandatory sentencing would be an improvement over the existing system, but the present philosophy of correctional services must be changed for any real improvement to take place. Countries that impose prison uniforms and run their prisons like boot camps have a much higher success rate of rehabilitation.

So while imposing mandatory sentencing is not a negative, it is a long way from effectively dealing with the problem of crime.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-03-17 12:34:08 PM

I heard the interview and what PMSH meant by "certainty of punishment" was that the criminal could be sure that once found guilty, He?she would be sentenced to prison rather than to some "easier" punishment like house arrest. In the States it has been found that capital punishment is more effective if it is carried out quickly. The long waits and endless appeals have weakened the deterrence factor.

Posted by: DML | 2010-03-18 12:04:45 AM

So how many innocent people have been "capital punished" I really don't like the idea of the state killing its own citizens, or any other citizens for that matter. I know it sucks when you know damn well the person did it, especially heinous murders and such. I don't know what the answer is, but more killing isn't it.

Posted by: Steve Bottrell | 2010-03-18 1:38:49 AM

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