Soft on evidence

Our John Geddes looks at the government’s crime policies.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson doesn’t offer up any departmental research at all to support the Tories’ major law-and-order thrust. Nor does Nicholson rely on reports by independent experts to buttress his case for telling judges how long they must lock up criminals for a slew of offences. Instead, in response to requests from Maclean’s for any analysis or data justifying the new minimum sentences, his office produced a 1,000-word memo explaining the policy. It candidly admits that research doesn’t offer persuasive evidence that mandatory minimum penalties, called MMPs for short, reduce crime. “In our opinion,” it says, “the studies are inconclusive particularly with respect to the main debate: do MMPs deter crime?”

If they can’t be shown to act as a deterrent, why put MMPs at the core of the government’s high-profile anti-crime push? Nicholson offers a list of seven other reasons … The top item on Nicholson’s seven-point list: “ensure victims feel that justice has been rendered.” And the second: “ensure that the amount of time served is proportional to the gravity of the offence” … This seemingly irrefutable line of reasoning, however, rests on the premise that the government knows sentences now being handed down by the courts are too light. In fact, they often haven’t bothered to collect that information. Nicholson’s office and his departmental officials admit they have not compiled statistics on typical sentences in convictions for most of the crimes they’ve targeted for MMPs. And it’s not always clear the new minimum terms will be any tougher than the sentences often imposed up to now.

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