And Black’s op-ed in today’s National Post is a must-read.
“It had been an interesting experience, from which I developed a much greater practical knowledge than I had ever had before of those who had drawn a short straw from the system; of the realities of street level American race relations; of the pathology of incorrigible criminals; and of the wasted opportunities for the reintegration of many of these people into society. I saw at close range the failure of the U.S. War on Drugs, with absurd sentences, (including 20 years for marijuana offences, although 42% of Americans have used marijuana and it is the greatest cash crop in California.) A trillion dollars have been spent, a million easily replaceable small fry are in prison, and the targeted substances are more available and of better quality than ever, while producing countries such as Colombia and Mexico are in a state of civil war.
And it’s a good point. The risk the state [or the Crown] runs is clogging up the system with offenders who are inconsequential to the overall stated desire to stamp out illegal drugs. Is the fact that so many of them are there an indictment of the ability of law-enforcement to get the big fish?
I had seen at close range the injustice of sentences one hundred times more severe for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, a straight act of discrimination against African-Americans, that even the first black president and attorney general have only ameliorated with tepid support for a measure, still being debated, to reduce the disparity of sentence from 100 to one to 18 to one.
It truly is disgraceful that two versions of the same drug inspire such different penalties.
But Black’s not done yet:
And I had heard the vehement allegations of many fellow residents of the fraudulence of the public defender system, where court-appointed lawyers, it is universally and plausibly alleged, are more often than not stooges of the prosecutors. They are paid for the number of clients they represent rather than for their level of success, and they do usually plead their clients to prison. They provide a thin veneer for the fable of the poor citizen’s day in court to receive impartial justice through due process.
It happens here too, but IMO not nearly as frequently. It’s one of the worst problems of the Youth Criminal Justice Act – where kids will plead out because they’ll be out faster then they would if they had their charges fully litigated.
And I had the opportunity to see why the United States has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as other prosperous democracies, (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom), how the prison industry grew, and successfully sought more prisoners, longer sentences, and maximal possibilities of probation violations and a swift return to custody.
Before I got into the maw of the U.S. legal system, I did not realize the country has 47 million people with a criminal record, (most for relatively trivial offenses,) or that prosecutors won more than 90% of their cases. There, at Coleman, I had seen the courage of self-help, the pathos of broken men, the drawn faces of the hopeless, the glazed expression of the heavily medicated, (90% of Americans judged to require confinement for psychiatric reasons are in the prison system), and the nonchalance of those who find prison a comfortable welfare system compared to the skid row that was their former milieu. America’s 2.4 million prisoners, and millions more awaiting trial or on supervised release, are an ostracized, voiceless legion of the walking dead; they are no one’s constituency.”
Former Manitoba justice minister Dave Chomiak promised to introduce a mental-health court before he left politics.
This from the FP’s Mary Agnes Welch, Feb 24, 2008 [her latest short blog has a passing mention of a topic dear to my heart]:
Mental Health Court
There are more than 100 of them in the United States. Ontario has had one for 20 years. And, Alberta’s assistant chief judge wants to set one up in his province to stop people with mental illnesses from getting churned repeatedly through the penal system with no special intervention.
Ontario’s court has a dedicated mental health prosecutor and a staff of workers who can intercept mentally ill people who get repeatedly hauled into court for minor offences. Instead of going to jail, people with Schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are diverted into programs. They get help with addictions, priority placement in housing units if they’re homeless and a health plan devised by psychiatrists and counselors.
Chris Summerville, executive director of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, said studies have shown that at least 16 per cent of prison inmates have a diagnosable mental illness.
“Why are prisons our largest mental health institutions?” said Summerville. “It’s not moral, it’s not ethical, it’s not appropriate.”
Summerville served on a high-powered task force three years ago that recommended a mental health court but hasn’t heard a peep about it since. He said the stumbling block then was a lack of services for the mentally ill.
But Justice Minister Dave Chomiak says he’s committed to creating a court for the mentally ill and hopes to have a plan in place before year’s end. He said such a specialized court has been a dream of his, but the details have been legally tricky.
“Before I leave this practice of politics, there will be a mental health court in this province,” promised Chomiak.
Now consider the fate of Tim Morneau, the Winnipeg ecstasy smuggler who’s about a year and a half into a 20 year prison term.
On Thursday, Morneau appealed — it could be his last chance for a new trial.
Here’s the audio recording of the hearing — note the joking and laughter at various points by the judges and lawyers and the gallery.
Given what Conrad Black has to say about “oversentenced” prisoners – many of whom are there because of the U.S. war on drugs, I’m wondering if Morneau could be considered one of them.
When the man in Manitoba’s now-second-largest drug bust of all time [42 kg. of coke] can get a 10 year sentence after years out on bail, a full trial and motions to suppress [he’ll serve maybe 3 given he’s essentially a first time, non-violent offender].
[He was denied bail this week as he appeals to the Supreme Court to hear his case]
It makes me question what goes on in the justice system south of our border.