Almost 30 years ago, a series of U.S. Republican political advertisements redrew the battle lines of electoral politics. They featured a murderer named Willie Horton who committed armed robbery and rape while out on parole.
The ads portrayed Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as a convict-loving liberal who could be counted on to recklessly endanger citizens by granting easy parole to criminals like Horton. The campaign was aimed at frightening voters, and it worked beyond its creators’ wildest dreams.
Flash forward to 2015. In its latest foray into the politics of fear, the Harper government proposes to remove any scant hope of parole for a category of criminals serving life sentences.
The gambit is reprehensible; a law without a purpose or legitimate rationale. It is a regressive, unneeded measure cooked up with one motive in mind — political advantage. It short, it is Willie Horton all over again, updated and tweaked for Canadian consumption.
In keeping with a growing roll call of federal laws, the new “lifer” provisions were drafted without regard to Canada's Charter of Rights. We have come to know the path that lies ahead all too well. After years of litigation — and millions of dollars wasted on defending them — the laws will be struck down. Harper will proceed to flay the judiciary for allegedly thwarting the will of democratically elected legislators.
It is incumbent on us to question what purported scourge the Harper government is responding to. And if there truly are violent criminals in our midst, why did the government wait so many years to stamp out the threat they pose?
In fact, the cupboard is embarrassingly bare of scary stories the Harper government can trot out as cautionary tales to justify its proposals. What’s more, life in prison already means life in prison. First-degree murderers cannot hope for release on parole until they have served at least 25 years of their life sentence. Most will spend close to 35 years in jail before obtaining parole. Even then, their freedom is closely supervised and they are subject to their parole being revoked in a flash. It is almost unheard-of for a first-degree murderer to be released and commit another violent offence.
We already have dangerous offender laws that are routinely used to keep high-risk inmates, such as the likes of Paul Bernardo, behind bars for the rest of their lives. Once designated, these offenders disappear into the prison system and are rarely released back into society.
One of the most jaw-dropping elements in the bill is a provision that makes cabinet ministers the final arbiter when it comes to parole. Is the underlying point that the National Parole Board cannot be trusted? If so, where are the statistics or case histories that would bear that out? Are politicians inherently more trustworthy?
What we are witnessing is a cynical election ploy designed to scare Canadians into voting for a party that makes much of its refusal to mollycoddle criminals.
Seven years of federal Conservative ideology have chopped at the very roots of Canadian penal philosophy. Our correctional leanings once embraced reform, research and rehabilitation. Canada was perceived internationally as a nation on the cutting edge of correctional progress.
According to Tory thought, however, all opponents, experts, researchers and opinion leaders are a hateful elite. Correctional policy is drafted to solidify the biases of uninformed voters who do not realize crime rates have dropped dramatically and to appease victims.
Meanwhile, money that could do enormous good if channelled into rehabilitative programs or facilities for mentally ill offenders — and thereby reduce the number of people destined to become crime victims in years to come — is squandered on new prison cells.
Based on incarceration rates, Canada is the second most punitive correctional system in the developed world. We have become an isolated, penal outlier. In contrast, the U.S. — whose model inspired so much of our regressive penal legislation — is in full retreat from failed experiments with mandatory minimum sentences or three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws. Its mistakes are seen to have warehoused offenders under inhumane conditions while utterly failing to deter crime.
When it comes to crime and punishment, no measure is so regressive that the Harper government cannot squeeze some electoral juice out of it. We are left to wonder what can possibly be left in the Tory larder? Whippings? Capital punishment?
Hard questions must be asked about the Tory crime agenda in this election year. If we fail to stop the government’s cavalcade of fear-driven manipulation, we will have only ourselves to blame.
- Anne London-Weinstein is an Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer and director of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers Association