Legal News and Commentary

Conservative Government Introduces Life Without Hope

The latest changes proposed by our current government in Canada – to impose even tougher and longer sentences on those convicted of particularly serious first degree murders – does not affect my typical client base. Murders are (thankfully) relatively rare in Canada and the short list of murders this law would apply to are even rarer. So I can’t claim this change will affect the immediate reality of my job in any way, or the services I provide to my clients. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged both for what it represents and for the larger trend in “tough on crime” legislation we’ve been dealing with in recent years.

At every turn, being “tough on crime” is held as a good unto itself. The political rhetoric of the day suggests that it makes good people feel better when we punish bad people, and that victims deserve not only protection but also satisfaction at knowing the people who hurt them will suffer in turn. The idea that we are most concerned with protecting the public, or God forbid with rehabilitating the offender, is just about gone. And that is, indeed, a very troubling development.

Criminal justice has always grappled with a number of competing priorities, and striking the appropriate balance isn’t easy. At issue is this basic challenge. We are all members of Canadian society. That includes victims, yes, and all law abiding citizens. It also includes offenders – even once they are convicted. And the government should be concerned with what’s best for everyone. That means acknowledging the need to protect the public, of course. And it even includes the value of seeing justice done and knowing that appropriate penalties are handed down when people break the law. But those goals need to be balanced against the realization that a big part of criminal justice is protecting the public from further crimes (which at some point become unlikely, as offenders get older) and also convicted criminals can, in fact, learn and grow and change their ways.

The problem with this recent trend in legislation isn’t only that it’s baldly political and pandering to a certain segment of our voting population. The problem is that our government has effectively opted out of considering the needs of offenders at all. Bad people are, apparently, no longer entitled to even factor into the equation. And that makes everything very easy. If it’s only about making the victims feel better, then no punishment can be too severe. And if it’s only about demonstrating justice and consequences, then an extreme demonstration is that much better than a moderate one.

I really don’t know what else to say. It’s going to be a long time before we can restore a sense of proportionality to the criminal justice system in Canada. It’s sustained a lot of damage in recent years. And it isn’t about the laws that have changed or the length of sentences. We can always debate what’s appropriate. It’s about the shift in perspective that has delegitimated some of the most important and fundamental factors that should be considered in criminal justice.

Life without hope is not justice. It doesn’t serve our society in any way, and it doesn’t make anyone or anything better. All it gives us is the satisfaction of knowing that we’ve been even tougher on crime, if that feeling alone does in fact bring satisfaction. It doesn’t to me.

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