In an important article, Globe journalist Kim Mackrael recently called attention to a little-discussed amendment in the Conservative government's omnibus crime legislation. The amendment would eliminate the principle that prison guards must use the "least restrictive measures" required to control inmates.
Ms. Mackrael quoted a number of experts in corrections speaking politely about what a bad idea this would be.
To be specific, the Tories want to amend article 4(d) of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (1992). The relevant clause establishes the principle "that the service use the least restrictive measures consistent with the protection of the public, staff members and offenders."
Why do the Tories want to remove this principle? They have been talking to themselves about it for some time. For example, in 2007 a review panel presented a detailed report to then-minister Stockwell Day on corrections issues. Entitled A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety, it takes direct aim at the clause in question:
"The panel believes that this principle has been emphasized too much by staff and management of CSC, and even by the courts in everyday decision-making about offenders. As a result an imbalance has been created that places the onus on SCS to justify why the least restrictive measures shouldn't be used, rather than on offenders to justify why they should have access to privileges based on their performance under their correctional plans."
This past weekend I was out canvassing in Saskatoon. One of the good citizens I encountered on the doorstep was a former senior official at Corrections Canada. Ms. Mackrael's article was on his mind.
"I've spent more time in federal prisons than anyone I know," he told me. "I've had meetings with prison administrators, and then I've explored ever corner of our prisons right down into the hole. I know what's going to happen if they take that clause out of the Act. What's going to happen is that guards are going to feel free to use more force, a lot more force, to control inmates. There's going to be an enormous rise in violence in our prison system."
Is this what the Tories want? Is this what Canadians want happening in our prisons? Hard to say, because the Tories don't think they owe Parliament an explanation or a debate on this or any other issue. Instead they are using time allocation to ram a bloated omnibus bill through it without accountability.
Critics have highlighted some of the other issues with the Tory crime package. Some of the proposed minimum sentences are disproportionate and perverse compared to others in the legal system. All evidence from the United States shows that increasing prison populations – the basic goal the Tories are pursuing – leads to more crime. And the federal government is cheerfully creating more prisoners for provincial corrections systems, without providing any funds to house or rehabilitate them. All of this while willfully ignoring the evidence that crime in Canada is already steadily declining.
In all of this, the Conservatives are demonstrating the real character of their government. This is rule by angry old uncle. A character in many families, not without his charm and soft side, who shouts his angry views for the hundredth time, demanding firm measures and an end to many abuses, even if the facts all point the other way.
Unfortunately, the angry old uncles are now in charge of the government of Canada, and our justice system. Much work will be required when they have been defeated to rescind and unwind the damage they are doing. Including, alas, this effort to make some of the worst places you can be in Canada much worse.
Brian Topp is running for leader of the New Democratic Party