Sentencing is a complex subject, but it is arguably the one national public policy issue on which citizens do not hesitate to express their opinions.

After a year-long study of sentencing, parole and federal corrections in 1987–88, during which the House of Commons Justice Committee consulted close to a thousand Canadians at hearings throughout Canada, the Committee found that the public had only partial knowledge or inaccurate perceptions of the criminal justice system in general and sentencing in particular.

In its final report, Taking Responsibility, (Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Solicitor General on its Review of Sentencing,Conditional Release and Related Aspects of Corrections), the Committee observed that, “While policymakers and politicians are wise to heed public opinion, they must be particularly cautious in the criminal justice field about acting on an inadequate or incomplete interpretation of public opinion. Ultimately, the evolution of sound government policy—one that has broad public support—is dependent on an informed public.”

This caution is especially important today after six years of justice policy development based not on research and evidence of what works to keep the public safe but on political expediency that draws on fear in communities and ignores continued and long-term decreases in crime rates.

This recent history departs dramatically from the approaches of both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments in the last 70 years of their respective times in office. There was remarkable bipartisan consensus that costly, repressive measures fail to deter crime and that, while serious and dangerous offenders must be isolated from society for lengthy periods, many others can serve shorter sentences or be dealt with safely and effectively in the community.

In an article in the September issue of The Walrus, “The Harper Doctrine: Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal”, Anthony Doob and Edward Greenspan make this case strongly, pointing out that “Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have agreed that our criminal justice system should help offenders rejoin civil society – until now, for reasons that have nothing to do with reducing crime”. They conclude their essay by asking, “If Canada’s reasonable and humane crime policies have historically been representative of Canadian values, then whose values does the Harper government believe it represents?”

I remain convinced that the current government’s sentencing and correctional policies do not represent the values of the majority of Canadians. I hope that subsequent submissions will prove that to be so.

Smart justice recognizes that the principles of sentencing enshrined in Canada’s Criminal Code do indeed support the value of helping offenders rejoin civil society. Consistent with this value is an openness to sentencing measures that help address causal factors in order to prevent more unsafe behaviour, based on evidence of what is proven to achieve the desired results.  This inevitably means that sentences which can be safely served in the community must be seriously considered: programs outside a prison environment change behaviour more cost-effectively.  Staying in the community can also strengthen relationships instead of weakening them further, it can provide more possibilities for reparations of harm done and responsible functioning as family members and citizens.  Smart justice favours sentence options that maintain community integration throughout or at the very least facilitate community re-integration as soon as possible.

For this to happen citizens’ opinions must be better informed about choices available, including community options that are effective and safe, and the difference those choices can make to the lives of many people in their own communities. This could bring us towards a smarter sentencing policy!

–David Daubney