By Daniel Zekveld
I will always remember my first experience visiting a prison. I was in my University choir, and we stopped at a medium-security prison while on tour to sing for their chapel service. Throughout our performance and through our brief interaction with inmates afterwards, many of them were brought to tears and were amazed that a group of University students would sing for them and chat with them. The whole choir received a letter from one of the people imprisoned there following the visit, and he explained how that performance reminded them of their dignity and humanity.
Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, provides a helpful definition of what justice should look like: “A system of true justice … holds individuals responsible for their actions … under an objective rule of law, but always in the context of community and always with the chance of transformation of the individual and healing of fractured relationships and of the moral order (p. 101).” The question remains, does Canada’s justice system reflect this definition?
Changes to Criminal Sentencing
Bill C-22 is currently being debated in the House of Commons and addresses some important principles of justice as defined above. This is a government Bill that seeks to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in an effort to improve our justice system. The Bill would include amendments to remove mandatory minimum prison sentences for 20 different offences. Under the Criminal Code amendments, this would include firearms offences such as possessing, manufacturing, importing, or exporting a restricted weapon, or other crimes committed with the use of a firearm (excluding violent crimes such as attempted murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault). Amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act would remove mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking, drug imports or exports, or drug production. It would also reduce certain maximum sentences and provide greater opportunity for conditional sentencing.
The stated goals of the bill include addressing the root problems of crime through education, rehabilitation, and other means while seeking to protect health and human rights and reduce harm in society. Additionally, the legislation states that problematic substance use is a health and social issue and should be treated as such, with concerns that greater criminal sanctions can increase the stigma associated with drug use. Finally, the government says that Bill C-22 will address systemic racism by reducing the percentage of minority populations that are imprisoned through mandatory minimum penalties.
What the Bill Does Well
Bill C-22 would give a judge greater discretion to promote alternatives to imprisonment when sentencing an offender for specific offenses, dependent on individual circumstances. Because mandatory minimum penalties would be removed for certain crimes, offenders may be sentenced to house arrest, probation, curfew, mandatory counselling, or treatment for substance abuse. For example, if a person is charged with possession of illegal drugs for the purpose of drug trafficking, they may be sentenced to house arrest rather than a mandatory minimum of one year in prison. Of course, prison is not completely off the table: a judge could still hand down a prison sentence to the offender if he considered it to be reasonable.
As our culture dismisses Christian morals and glorifies sinful excess, the family unit suffers as criminal activity tends to increase. For example, crime and substance abuse have been shown to be strongly linked to fatherless households. Alternative sentences to imprisonment may help keep families together, while continuing to recognize the importance of offenders taking personal responsibility for their actions. Alternative sentences for minor crimes can be effective in reducing crime rates by helping offenders change their behaviour outside of the prison system. They can also prevent criminals from being affected by bad influences in prison.
In addition, this bill may create more room for private, non-profit, and other civil society organizations who seek to transform and rehabilitate offenders. Christian organizations may be able to provide counselling or mentorship to a larger number of offenders, and to help them reintegrate into society. As a result, it can help reduce the strain on the Canadian justice system, giving law enforcement the opportunity to put greater focus on other criminal and public safety concerns.
What the Bill is Lacking
While Bill C-22 allows for greater flexibility in terms of minimum sentences, it also reduces some of the maximum sentences, allowing for less flexibility in terms of longer sentences for the truly dangerous offender. Concerns have also been raised about mandatory minimum penalties being removed for some of the criminal offences, especially certain firearms offences. Discharging a firearm with intent, or out of recklessness is more concerning than drug possession, and both would have mandatory minimum penalties removed. Likewise, although sentences for theft over $5000 might be served well in the community through house arrest or restitution, kidnapping or sexual assault sentences (crimes which this bill would allow conditional sentences for if less than a two-year sentence) may be better served in prison. There should be a discussion on which crimes should and should not have mandatory minimum penalties, but the principle is a step in the right direction for non-violent crimes which can be effectively addressed outside of the prison system.
Additionally, while health and social concerns are involved in drug use and abuse, the federal government should still recognize drug use as a criminal issue, rather than an issue that simply needs to be “destigmatized.” Many in Canada today see humans as basically good by nature and believe that if a person breaks the law, it is because of social or economic circumstances, rather than a sinful decision or action. As Christians, we know that humans are sinful actors and that every crime is a moral choice. And while we should have compassion and understanding for those dealing with addiction, this moral choice cannot be ignored. Our justice system must continue to understand that criminal behaviour is a harmful choice by moral actors. Someone who commits a drug-related crime needs help, but the justice system should also endeavor to ensure that the crime is not repeated and that the crime is punished appropriately.
The recommendations in ARPA Canada’s policy report on Restorative Justice include using conditional sentences (i.e. house arrest) more frequently, and reserving mandatory minimum sentencing for violent crimes and offenders who are a danger to the community, and prioritizing diversity in sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment. While the details of Bill C-22 may need to be worked out further, there are some important principles addressed within it. The removal of certain mandatory minimum sentences allows for more opportunity to positively affect criminal behaviour through alternative sentences and treatment where necessary.
Prison sentences have not been shown to effectively improve criminal behaviour. Depending on the crime committed, it may be better for offenders to serve time in the community. House arrest still separates an offender from the community, while seeking to maintain principles of being a good member of that community. This can be done through counselling, or by being able to keep working and provide for their family. Drug offenders may have the opportunity to change through a rehab program. Old Testament principles of restitution show that theft can be punished by requiring the offender to restore or pay back what he stole. As much as possible, our justice system should seek to restore relationships broken by crime. Especially for minor crimes, letting offenders sit in jail may not be the answer. Our communities can seek to transform the lives of criminal offenders while continuing to recognize the importance of punishment for crime.
As Christians, we seek transformation on a personal, community, and national level, knowing that Christ is the One Who changes lives, and He is the King of our nation. As with other political and societal issues, Christians can provide a unique perspective on criminal justice, and Christian organizations can seek to promote a true sense of human dignity, personal responsibility, and transformation in Christ.