Published On Tue Mar 09 2010
OTTAWA—Justice Minister Rob Nicholson should take a long, honest look at the Rahim Jaffer case and apply its lessons to the Conservative criminal justice agenda, the head of the John Howard Society said Tuesday.
“It’s really easy to disparage discretion for judges — until you need it,” Craig Jones told The Canadian Press in an interview.
Jaffer, a former senior Conservative MP in the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, walked out of a courtroom in Orangeville, Ont., after drunk driving and cocaine possession charges were dropped in return for a plea bargain on a careless driving charge.
“I’m sure you can recognize a break when you see one,” Justice Doug Maund told Jaffer.
The decision drew howls of outrage from government critics, who accused the Conservatives of gross hypocrisy for promoting an aggressive “tough-on-crime” agenda but remaining silent when the mantra was not applied to one of their own.
Jones, who as executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada advocates for “effective, just and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime,” took a different tack.
He contrasted the treatment of Jaffer to the Harper government’s push to create mandatory minimum sentences for a whole host of offences.
“I don’t know Jaffer’s history, I certainly don’t know his heart,” said Jones.
“But would any social benefit really be served by making an example of him? By putting him in jail? By throwing the book at him?
“I mean, the guy’s been publicly humiliated. ... If this is a first offence, it’s a very costly first offence for a guy who aspires to be in public service.”
Conservatives, up to and including the prime minister, have publicly criticized judges for sentences they deemed too light. Harper, unsolicited, publicly questioned the sentence handed to a Toronto terrorism convict in January.
But on Tuesday several Conservative MPs stressed that the Jaffer court proceedings were in Ontario jurisdiction and had nothing to do with the federal government.
“It’s a judge who made the decision,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn. “There is never any intervention politically.”
Quebec Tory Steven Blaney said the separation of the political and the judicial is “Politics 101.”
Yet political intervention is precisely what the Conservatives are pushing when they enact mandatory minimum sentencing laws, said several experts.
“Most Canadians — regardless of their ‘law and order’ views — accept that proportionality in sentencing makes sense,” Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, said in an email Tuesday.
“But (mandatory minimums) make it impossible for judges to accomplish proportionality, given the range of behaviour involved. So, we’ve sacrificed proportional sentencing for largely political purposes.”
The experts say the truly perverse aspect of mandatory minimums and “truth in sentencing” provisions is that in real life they actually make the administration of justice more “surreal and bizarre and unjust,” in Jones’ words.
“They encourage exactly the kind of behaviour that you see here (with Jaffer),” said the criminal justice advocate.
“Prosecutors and judges strike deals to preserve proportionality. But because they can’t do it in public, they do it behind closed doors.”
And a well-recorded history of increased plea bargains in areas of mandatory minimum sentences suggests it is people like Jaffer — connected, educated, wealthy — who benefit most, said criminologist Neil Boyd of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. B.C.
“Mandatory minimums introduce more discretion to police and prosecutors, particularly prosecutors . . . (but) it creates really haphazard justice,” said Boyd.
“Some people will be sentenced for relatively trivial things for very long periods of time and other people will be able to avoid it — usually having to do with the kinds of resources they have at their disposal in terms of legal defence.”
There is not point in dealing with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson when Mr. Harper controls him like a puppet on strings and a parrot to regurgitate Harper scripts.