Mandatory sentences not an answer

  • June 5, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - As two 17-year-old boys prepare to face a judge over the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in a Toronto school hallway, the ecumenical Church Council on Justice and Corrections continues its fight against mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.
Even the head honcho at the council concedes her group, which includes the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Anglican Church and the largest Protestant denominations, has very little chance of stopping Bill C-10. The bill, which would force judges to sentence offenders to a minimum of three years for any offence involving a firearm, is headed for third reading in the House of Commons with Conservative and NDP support.

The church alliance’s efforts to “try to get the debate onto a different level” have been frustrated by emotional arguments in response to shocking and violent crimes, especially in Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods, said CCJC community chair of justice Lorraine Berzins.

“I don’t think the debate is being taken seriously on its own merits by a lot of people,” Berzins said.

She also accuses politicians who promote mandatory minimums of cynically playing to emotions.

“It is being used as a means to achieve other political goals, not goals related to criminal justice itself,” she said.

{sidebar id=2}York University professor of law and sociology Margaret Beare confirms the churches have science on their side when they argue for alternative sentencing, circles of support and a corrections system focused on reintegration and rehabilitation. The politicians are ignoring serious research which shows stiffer jail sentences have no deterrence value, she said.

“Science? That’s irrelevant. They don’t care at all,” she told The Catholic Register. “Building prisons has been shown everywhere not to be the answer.”

It is poor communities, such as the Jane-Finch neighbourhood where Jordan was murdered, that will pay the highest price for policies that ignore the real causes of violence, said Beare.

“You know who will end up labelled as strike number two or three. It ain’t me down here. It’s some poor black kid up in Jane-Finch,” she said.

“A member of Parliament who proposes this legislation probably doesn’t think beyond the sound of the judge’s gavel hitting the wood,” said Catholic prison chaplain Gerry Ayott, regional chaplain for the Pacific with Correctional Services Canada.

The more young men a community has serving hard time, the more dysfunctional the community becomes, argues Ayott.

“So you take some screwed up kid and you throw him into a prison with adults who are highly dysfunctional, and in some cases personality disordered and in other cases psychopathic, and you’ve got a correctional service that’s trying to do their best in the Pacific region alone with over 2,000 prisoners to provide programs and to help redirect the thinking of some of them and their lifestyles — and you throw a kid in the midst of that. It’s just horrific,” Ayott said.

Eventually offenders return to the community with fewer job prospects and life skills than they had when they went to prison, said Quebec prison chaplain Laurent Champagne, the Catholic bishops’ representative to the CCJC.

“When he gets out he will be like a lion in the jungle,” said Champagne. “He will get out and the first person he’s going to see he’s going to bite.”

Mandatory minimum sentences turn the court system into a sham of pretend justice, said Champagne. Rather than take responsibility for their crimes, an adversarial system with mandatory sentences encourages lawyers to play the courts for the best deal — bargaining between Crown and defence attorneys to see who gets charged with an offence which invokes the minimum sentence.

“It (mandatory minimums) causes the legal industry to practise its tactics in court — to withhold information, to try to get the person off the hook, to do a lot of things that prevent a lot of issues from being aired publicly because that may damage the case, to discourage the offenders from taking responsibility for what they have done,” said Berzins.

Berzins points out that Jamaica, which has some of the stiffest sentences in the world, also has the highest murder rate in the world. Much higher rates of incarceration and longer sentences in the United States haven’t brought down crime rates, she said.

It doesn’t surprise Ayott that prison chaplains and other front-line workers who know the results of long prison sentences are losing the political debate over law and order.

“There’s probably a century of Hollywood behind a lot of the impressions informed in people’s minds,” he said. “It’s just so appealing to think there’s a quick fix to a highly complex, intergenerational social problem.”

Even if science weren’t on his side, Ayott would still be fighting against the do-the-crime-do-the-time approach to law and order.

“All I can do at the end of the day is say, ‛Does my approach to this — my desire and whatever direction I try to take in terms of these complex issues — does it resonate with who Jesus is?’ That’s got to be the touchstone,” he said.

Ayott believes Pope John Paul II’s forgiveness of would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca should key the Catholic response to violent crime. And he believes Catholic legislators whose approach to law and order is purely punitive are on the wrong side of church teaching.

“A Catholic member of Parliament who can vote for some of these laws, not only around abortion — that’s just too easy; who can argue the innocence of a beautiful, little unborn child? That’s a piece of cake. But where the rubber of faith hits the road is when something is ugly and repugnant to us. How do we approach that?”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.