A lawyer, legal educator, and author, James C. Morton has written more than twenty-five legal texts as well as numerous papers and articles. He is past president of the Ontario Bar Association and a long-time human rights and community activist. He’s served as a governor for the Canadian International Peace Project, counsel for the Canadian Somali Congress, and legal counsel (pro bono) for Artists Against Racism, a registered charity fighting racial and religious prejudice. In this piece, published in the Ottawa Citizen on October 13, 2008, Morton argues that tough punishment is not the solution to the common problem of chronic offences in the area of petty theft.
In a season of tough talk on crime, I would like to propose a challenge to our political leaders. In this country, one group of criminals commits a disproportionate number of crimes that we could easily reduce with more coercive sentencing. However, our usual form of coercion—imprisonment—doesn’t work for them. They need a different kind of sentence. But to make that happen—and to significantly reduce the number of crimes they commit—would require a degree of will and wisdom that our legislators can’t seem to muster.
The legal system refers to these men—they are almost all men—as chronic offenders. What everyone knows—but the justice system doesn’t acknowledge—is that they are also drug addicts, hooked on heroin or crack cocaine. They steal not for gain but to support their addiction, to pay for their next fix.
This has nothing to do with getting high. For an addict, the point is to avoid the effects of withdrawal—in the case of heroin, including cramps and muscle spasms, fever, cold sweats and goose bumps (hence the phrase “cold turkey”), insomnia, vomiting, diarrhea and a condition called “itchy blood,” which can cause compulsive scratching so severe that it leads to open sores. For addicts, drug use is not a lifestyle choice that’s easy to change. Many have been addicted for their entire adult lives, and as a result have spent half their lives behind bars, serving dozens of sentences for minor crimes. These are the “revolving door” criminals that some critics point to—arrested, tried, sentenced to a few weeks or months, then dumped back out on the street, only to be arrested, tried and convicted again a few weeks later.
Canada has hundreds of criminals like that, mainly in the larger cities. Vancouver alone recently identified 379. According to a report by the Vancouver Police Department, the vast majority were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many also suffer from a mental disorder, generally untreated. In the five years between 2001 and 2006, Vancouver’s few hundred chronic offenders, as a group, were responsible for 26,755 police contacts—more than 5,000 contacts per year, 14 a day. The costs are staggering.
Arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations end up costing some $20,000 per criminal per month—per month! There has to be a better way.
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