It’s been a long climb up the legal ladder for MP Serge Ménard.
He’s done it all - provincial Crown in Montreal, federal Crown, defense lawyer, president of l’Association des avocats de la défense, then Batonnier of the Quebec Bar, and finally ends up Quebec justice minister, taking on the Hells Angels and beating them into submission.
Today Ménard is a Bloc Québécois MP in Ottawa, the party’s public safety critic, and a recognized expert on criminal law. When he speaks, colleagues listen.
The other day in the Commons, Ménard went after the controversial mandatory minimum penalties in bill C-2, the Conservatives’ crime legislation.
Conservatives believe stiffer minimums and less leeway for judges in sentencing means a better, safer society. Ménard says tying the hands of judges is not the answer.
Nor are “bogus solutions” from “south of the border. “I would not want this country to follow in its neighbor’s footsteps only to end up with the same results,” he says.
The U.S. option for more jail has led to more crime. The U.S. has seven times Canada’s incarceration rate. It has three times more homicides per capita, and five times more spouses killed per capita. If more jail were the answer, the U.S. would be like heaven.
American politicians keep cranking up mandatory minimums and filling their jails as their crime rate keeps going up. Jail more people; build more jails. More than two million Americans are in jail right now. (That’s like the population of Manitoba and Saskatchewan combined - all sitting in jail.)
Young black American males today have a better chance of ending up in jail than attending university.
The Conservatives’ wish for more jail (a $245-million bill for another jail came in last week) has to do, Ménard says, with manipulating perceptions.
The Conservative plan is to position the debate on crime heading into the next general election to make Conservatives appear tough on crime and the Opposition as soft on crime.
Ménard notes Harper aborted the last session and re-introduced his crime bills this fall to re-start the crime debate in the lead up to the next election.
Ménard says he’s watched the Conservatives MPs. When they talk about crime, they only cite the worst cases and the worst criminals. They don’t talk about the vast majority of cases filled with all sorts of mitigating circumstances.
One size does not fit all, and should not either when it comes to sentencing, Ménard says. That’s why judges must not have their hands tied. The punishment must fit the crime, not the legislation of electoralist politicians.
Ménard hauls out an anecdote. He says when he began as a Crown in 1966, the mandatory minimum for importing marijuana was seven years. It came as a shock to him.
“It was one of the harshest penalties in the Criminal Code,” he says.
Did it lower marijuana use, he asks? No, not at all, he answers. Marijuana use just kept going up and up all through the 1980s.
Ironically, the new Harper legislation would raise the current seven-year minimum for growing marijuana to 14 years - double the jail time. It would make growing weed worse than second-degree murder in Harper’s Canada.
Weed worse than Murder II.
Ménard has a “success” story to cheer up the House.
He remembers impaired driving. It used to be a major problem, especially among young people. But instead of raising minimum sentences for impaired driving, the politicians put their money into awareness campaigns for drivers. It worked. There was a massive decrease in impaired driving. People took it seriously.
When police began spot checks on highways, they used to stop up to 10 per cent of drivers. Today they sometimes haul in less than one per cent. Some police no longer bother setting up spot-check operations.
Ménard says even his own kids, when they go out, have a designated driver. These are habits learned without fear of a longer prison term.
“Does anyone really believe that criminals think about the length of sentence they could serve if caught?” he asks. “It’s fear of being caught they worry about, not the length of sentence. If they believe they will be caught, they change their behavior.”
Crime prevention is important too.
“When I began practising law,” he says, “Montreal was the armed robbery capital of Canada.” Today, no one can remember the last bank robbery in Montreal.
It wasn’t longer sentences that did it; it was intelligent preventive measures. Banks are built differently. They have cameras, better alarms, special cash drawers, money packs, and exploding dye.
“The risk of being caught in relation to profits is not worth it anymore,” says Ménard.
His best example is the death penalty, he says, abolished 25 years ago. The number of murders has declined ever since.
We should be up to our ears in murders today if execution had been a deterrent.
Ménard says handing down mandatory minimums forces a judge who has gone over a case and weighed all the factors - individual and general deterrents, seriousness of the crime, circumstances surrounding the crime, background, recidivism, home life, outside influences, and dozens of other factors - to end up sentencing someone to three years who should be getting 18 months. That’s no way to do law.
Some days it’s worth sitting in the Commons gallery listening to MPs who have something intelligent to say.
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill.