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Canadian Conservatives need a rethink on criminal justice policy

The Conservative Party of Canada should rethink its approach to the criminal justice system during the leadership race.
Garnett Genuis Montreal, QC

Garnett Genuis is the Conservative MP representing Sherwood Park–Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta.

The Conservative leadership race provides us with a good opportunity for substantive internal policy debate. One area of policy orthodoxy that needs refinement is criminal justice.

Let’s start with first principles. Conservatives are naturally skeptical of big government and want to minimize costs to taxpayers. Conservatives believe in individual responsibility and the capacity of individuals to shape and transform their own lives. Conservatives stand with victims of crime and want to protect their rights—especially their right not to be victims in the first place. While continuing to emphasize personal responsibility, Conservatives must acknowledge structures of division and exclusion that lead to higher crime rates in certain quarters and we must support strategies to address those structures.

In 2015, former Justice Minister Peter McKay introduced a bill that would “ensure that certain classes of criminals will be subject to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole”. The bill was branded “life means life”. The bill did not have time to pass in the 41st Parliament, and was therefore re-proposed and voted on after I was elected. I disagree with this bill and I stood to vote against it.

There are criminals who should never be released, especially repeat offenders and those who continue to be a danger to society. I believe that dangerous offenders should be qualified as such, and that we must do better to ensure that we never release people into the community who have a “high likelihood of re-offending”. However, determinations about someone’s likelihood of re-offending will be more accurate after years of incarceration and treatment, and therefore flexibility should be preserved even after sentencing. Putting all of the decision-making onto trial judges or legislatures through “truth-in-sentencing” regimes and mandatory minimums can sometimes fail to respond to evolving circumstances or to the fine particulars of individual cases.

A person who remains violent should not be released. But it is not in the public interest for someone who commits a single violent crime in their 20s to remain ineligible for parole into their 70s and 80s. A person can indeed change and choose a different path. If they do not change, then they will not be released even if they are eligible to apply.

Some people approach these issues thinking “who cares about criminals?” Why should we be concerned about whether someone who committed a violent crime is eligible for release, even if they are fully rehabilitated?

There are two very concrete reasons to release a rehabilitated person in view of the common good. First, it is well established that criminals who are ineligible for parole are a greater risk to guards and other prisoners because they have nothing left to lose. Secondly, incarceration is very expensive. According to a recent report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the average cost of federal incarceration is about $115,000 per inmate.

Consider the case of a person who commits a violent crime at age 25. Suppose that he is re-habilitated and demonstrates model behavior up to turning 50. Should he, at that point, be eligible for parole? If we decide that he should not be, then all of us must assume the cost of continuing incarceration, perhaps $3-3.5 million for that one individual alone. I am willing to pay for the cost of incarceration, but only when it is required.

We can never be 100% sure that someone will not re-offend, any more than we can be 100% sure that anyone we know will not turn out to be a criminal. But we can say on balance that those $3-3.5 million in this particular case could save more lives if spent on crime prevention. You could literally hire over 50 entry level RCMP constables for a year for that $3 million. In a world of finite resources, we should seek to spend dollars in the way that will most effectively help victims—which should foremost mean working to reduce the crime rate through effective preventative interventions.

Some of my colleagues have argued that we should not put victims’ families through the agony of repeated parole hearings when a criminal is unrepentant. I agree with that, and I would propose that we reform the parole process to require a person to demonstrate certain general attributes of rehabilitation before having a parole hearing. Eliminating parole eligibility across the board, however, is an unnecessarily overbroad response.

I hope that this leadership race features meaningful thoughtful discussion about criminal justice reform that puts victims first and effectively prevents crime.

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