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Harper gets tougher on pot growers than child rapists

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is getting tougher on pot growers than he is on rapists of children. Under the Tories' omnibus crime legislation tabled Tuesday, a person growing 201 pot plants in a rental unit would receive a longer mandatory sentence than someone who rapes a toddler or forces a five-year-old to have sex with an animal.

Producing six to 200 pot plants nets an automatic six-month sentence, with an extra three months if it's done in a rental or is deemed a public-safety hazard. Growing 201 to 500 plants brings a one-year sentence, or 11/2 years if it's in a rental or poses a safety risk.

The omnibus legislation imposes one-year mandatory minimums for sexually assaulting a child, luring a child via the Internet or involving a child in bestiality.

All three of these offences carry lighter automatic sentences than those for people running medium-sized grow-ops in rental property or on someone else's land.

A pedophile who gets a child to watch pornography with him, or a pervert exposing himself to kids at a playground, would receive a minimum 90-day sentence, half the term of a man convicted of growing six pot plants in his own home.

The maximum sentence for growing marijuana would double from seven to 14 years, the same maximum applied to someone using a weapon during a child rape, and four years more than for someone sexually assaulting a kid without using a weapon.

Here in B.C., if police and prosecutors don't rebel against the new laws, we're going to be hit with massive jail costs, says Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd.

The new marijuana legislation will increase the proportion of pot criminals in B.C. jails from less than five per cent to around 30 per cent, at a cost of about $65,000 per inmate annually, Boyd says.

"Why put people who are not violent in jail?" Boyd asks. "People who commit serious violent crime are already dealt with pretty harshly, and crime rates are down, not up."

Harper's U.S.-style war on drugs ignores our southern neighbour's expensive failed effort.

"Eight states -- including New York, where laws were the most punitive in the nation -- have repealed most of these mandatory-minimum sentences, and dozens of other jurisdictions are considering repeal or reform," a February report from Human Rights Watch says.

Even the government's own Justice Department questions the use of mandatory minimums.

"There is some indication that minimum sentences are not an effective sentencing tool," reads a 2010 report from the department. "They constrain judicial discretion without offering any increased crime-prevention benefits."

Provincial jails -- where most people convicted under the new laws will end up -- provide far fewer rehabilitation programs than federal prisons, leading to higher rates of reoffending, says Stacey Hannem, chairman of the policy review committee at the Canadian Criminal Justice Association.

"There's a real revolving-door problem in our provincial institutions," Hannem says. "If you're going to throw even more people in there, you can bet that the recidivism rate in the provincial system is likely to go up.

"If you want to get tough on crime, that's fine. But don't sell it as increasing public safety. That's just not true."

Ethan Baron is a Vancouver Province columnist.

--Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2011 A13

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