All statistics point to the fact that crime has decreased. So why harden the criminal law and send more people to jail? The Harper government's "tough on crime" omnibus bill is clearly motivated by ideology – a law-and-order mindset that chooses punishment over rehabilitation even though we should know by now that undue repression, far from stopping crime, only transforms minor offenders into professional criminals.
Yet, as irrational as it is, perhaps there is some logic to be found in Bill C-10. It is crass electoral logic. The philosophy behind the bill will play well with many voters across Canada, including in Quebec. This, despite the conventional wisdom that deems Quebec a more "compassionate" province whose people prefer policies based on rehabilitation rather than on vengeance.
Reality check: Last month, Jean-Marc Léger, the head of Léger Marketing, revealed some of the findings of a survey done by his firm. It showed 79 per cent of Quebeckers want our justice system to be more severe; 77 per cent believe crimes are not punished enough in Canada; and as many as 41 per cent want underage delinquents to be judged as adults.
The problem is that most people don't care about statistics. On this issue, more than anything else, they react with their gut feelings.
Indeed, the reason why crime rates – especially for homicide – have decreased might be the very reason why people are more afraid of crime than they used to be. It all has to do with the declining birth rate and the aging of society. There are fewer violent crimes because there are fewer young men – the category most susceptible to commit crimes – and people have become more fearful because they're getting older. And fear often leads to intolerance.
Otherwise, how can one explain that sensible and generally kind people want to see small pot dealers stuck with a mandatory jail sentence, when it's so clear that, at worst, it will likely ruin their lives and, at best, force them to leave school or lose their jobs? Until now, judges were free to use common sense. Sentencing someone convicted of a relatively minor offence to work in the community, for instance, is certainly more sensible than throwing him behind bars and sticking him with a criminal record. Unfortunately, with Bill C-10 and its provisions for mandatory sentencing, the government engages in a huge micro-management of the courts, as if judges were incapable of evaluating what kind of punishment fits the crime.
Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier made a remarkable presentation at a recent parliamentary committee hearing. Just like Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, he objected to the fact that the federal crime bill will heighten the provinces' fiscal burden by millions in prison costs – not to mention the social and human costs. More and longer prison terms mean more school dropouts, more unemployment, more divorces, more family dislocation, more addictions and so on. Mr. Fournier especially objects to the bill's provision on young offenders and, in a commendable constructive move, intends to present a series of amendments to C-10. The fact that many Quebeckers actually agree with the general tenor of this bill doesn't mean their provincial government should go with the wave. Leadership is the ability to take a position against knee-jerk reactions.
The federal government, of course, should pick up the tab for the costs generated by its own initiative. But more important, it should remove the most uselessly punitive aspects of the bill.