Canada's Original Think Tank

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Published on 1 April 2014
Your Question Period by Senator James Cowan (retired)

Please press play to listen to the audio of this question. Please note that the audio is provided in the language in which the senators spoke. Senators may speak either official language in the Senate Chamber. For the full text of the translated exchange please click here.

Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):

Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate, and it comes today from Geoffrey Robinson, who divides his time between Ottawa and California where he is a history professor at UCLA.

Professor Robinson’s question is as follows:

As a Canadian born and raised in Ottawa, who has spent many years living in California, I’m dismayed by Canada’s recent expansion and embrace of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Such laws have backfired badly in the U.S. — so badly in fact that jurisdictions across the country, including the federal government, are now rolling them back.

Rather than deter crime and create a fairer judicial system, mandatory minimums in the U.S. have resulted in an oversized, overcrowded, and enormously expensive prison system, a shift of judicial discretion away from judges into the hands of prosecutors, and the imposition of sentences for minor, non-violent crimes so breathtakingly long that respected voices from across the political spectrum are now arguing for a repeal of this type of legislation.

The American Bar Association has stated that “Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the country’s top law enforcement official, concluded last year that because of such legislation, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Even the conservative criminal justice initiative Right on Crime has come out firmly against the American over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing.

The United States’ experiment with such legislation has not only been an unmitigated policy failure; it has affected hundreds of thousands of real people — mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, neighbours and friends — whose lives have been devastated by years, sometimes decades, of needless and counter-productive incarceration.

Professor Robinson’s question is as follows:

On what specific evidence is the Canadian government basing its expansion and embrace of mandatory minimum sentencing policies that are known to have failed elsewhere?

And before the leader answers, I should point out that Professor Robinson is in the gallery today.


Please click here to read the full text of this exchange


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