Tories want mandatory jail time for dealers
The Conservative government continued its law-and-order blitz Friday by reintroducing tougher penalties for drug offences.
The changes came a day after Ottawa announced Criminal Code amendments aimed at gang violence.
But a veteran defence lawyer gave the government's lock 'em up strategy a failing grade, saying it doesn't get at the roots of gangsterism -- alienated young people and widespread demand for illegal drugs.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson have all been in Vancouver in the last two weeks as the region reeled from 18 shootings this month -- seven fatal.
Two alleged gangsters were gunned down in their vehicles outside busy shopping malls and a woman was shot to death as she drove her husband's car with their four-year-old son in the back seat.
Homicide investigators were probing another suspicious death after a body was found in an overturned SUV on Thursday.
As the amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act were being tabled Friday in Parliament, Nicholson talked tough on crime at a news conference at the RCMP's B.C. headquarters.
"I think the message is: If you want to bring drugs into this country you are going to jail," he said as some of the region's top police officers looked on.
"In 30 years of policing, I have never seen so many gang members who have so much weaponry, who have so little regard for their competition, as well as innocent bystanders," said Vancouver city police Chief Jim Chu.
"It is clear we need to do something about this. We need the criminal justice system to strike fear in the hearts of gang members."
The new package, similar to one Nicholson tried to pass last year, includes:
- A one-year mandatory prison sentence for dealing drugs for organized-crime purposes or when a weapon or violence is used;
- A two-year minimum term for dealing harder drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines to youth, or dealing near a school;
- Two years minimum for running a pot grow-op with at least 500 plants, plus increasing the maximum term for producing marijuana to 14 years, and
- Stiffer sentences for trafficking in so-called date-rape drugs.
Nicholson said the changes don't target drug addicts who sell just to support their habit. They can receive suspended sentences in drug courts if they go through a treatment program, he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Vancouver on Thursday as Nicholson tabled Criminal Code amendments that would make gang-related killings first-degree murder -- subject to an automatic life sentence with a 25-year minimum term before parole eligibility -- and set minimum four-year terms for drive-by shootings.
Last year, the Tories made various kinds of firearms offences subject to a minimum amount of jail time.
Nicholson said the new laws will attack gangs by fragmenting their membership.
"What we want to do is get some of these people off the streets," he said. "We want to break up this gang-related activity."
Toronto defence lawyer William Trudell said he doesn't doubt politicians' sincerity but called this week's moves stop-gaps.
"There's an opportunity to look like we're getting tough, so we introduce new legislation and then criticize others who don't accept it," said Trudell, chairman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers.
"That's immediate gratification for political purposes or to put out fires."
The threat of a mandatory prison term is no deterrent to the average gangster who rarely thinks that far ahead, Trudell said in an interview.
"Nobody who's out to commit an offence is thinking I'm going to get a minimum sentence or I'm going to be charged with first-degree murder," he said. "They don't have the discipline. They're looking for immediate gratification."
The new laws will do little more than further clog up the court system and limit judge's discretion on how best to deal with individual offenders, Trudell said.
Mandatory minimums don't work, he said.
The real solution are not as politically sexy and involves putting far more resources into "the front end" of the system -- street policing aimed at keeping kids away from gangs and discouraging illicit drug use.
"We did it with cigarettes; why can't we do it with drugs?"