The “Truth in Sentencing” Act, which was meant to limit credit for pre-trial custody at the time of sentencing, is but one example of the conservative government’s reactive “tough on crime” policies. Another example is the changes to federal pardon regulations. While the public sometimes like to see such legislation, the effect is much different than what the government claims is the purpose of the legislation.
Case in point: our neighbours to the south. The United States incarcerates a whopping 1 in 100 people yet their crime rate is considerably higher than Canada’s. While their are definitely other reasons for the differences in crime rates, it is not unfair to draw the conclusion that jails and prisons are not solving the crime problem.
This pointed piece from The Economist explains some of the issues. The article presents examples of fisherman receiving eight years in prison for violating Honduran regulations that are not enforced in Honduras; reviews three-strikes laws that just don’t work (there are examples of people receiving life sentences for petty theft); and explains how there is a correlation in some jursidctions (New York is the prime example) of attempts to lower incarceration rates and a subsequent lowering of crime rates. The author blames the politicians for the problem:
Some parts of America have long taken a tough, frontier attitude to justice. That tendency sharpened around four decades ago as rising crime became an emotive political issue and voters took to backing politicians who promised to stamp on it. This created a ratchet effect: lawmakers who wish to sound tough must propose laws tougher than the ones that the last chap who wanted to sound tough proposed. When the crime rate falls, tough sentences are hailed as the cause, even when demography or other factors may matter more; when the rate rises tough sentences are demanded to solve the problem. As a result, America’s incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970.
While few will disagree that tough sentencing isn’t meant for petty crimes, the unfortunate reality is that those accused of such crimes often get caught up in the frenzy of these tougher laws. Violent crime is another issue in itself. American sentencing for such crimes can be extremely harsh and extremely varied (unlike Canada where criminal law is federally legislated and sentences will generally be consistent, with exceptions of course, across the country). Sentencing a young person who commits a horrendous act to prison for numerous decades really does little besides punish the individual and make society feel better. In reality, a dangerous 20 or 30 year-old will, in most cases, not be dangerous in their 50s and 60s, yet there is often the need to keep them locked-up.
I do agree that punishment is an important part of sentencing, and those who commit serious crimes need to be punished. However, we need to take a close look at how sentencing can also rehabilitate and help reintegrate those who break the law into society which will, in turn, help reduce crime as a whole.
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