AIDS expert Julio Montaner says Conservative crime bill will undermine public health
The immediate past president of the International AIDS Society, Dr. Julio Montaner, says the Conservative government's crime agenda will jeopardize the health of some marginalized people.
After a public-policy forum at Liberal MP Joyce Murray's constituency office, Montaner told the Georgia Straight that the government's omnibus crime legislation, Bill C-10, is "totally counterproductive" and will make it more difficult for physicians to deliver public-health services to people who are poor, First Nations, mentally ill, at risk of HIV, or drug-addicted.
"This law is all about incarcerating the people that this government views as the 'other Canadians' for which they have no time for or no interest," Montaner claimed.
Montaner is director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul's Hospital and is a professor of medicine and the chair in AIDS research at the University of British Columbia.
Bill C-10, known as "The Safe Streets and Communities Act", combines nine Conservative bills from the last Parliament that didn't become law.
Among its provisions are the elimination of house arrest for violent crimes, mandatory jail terms for people who grow marijuana for the purpose of trafficking, tougher parole rules, tougher penalties for sexual offences against children, and giving the minister of public safety legal authority to refuse to let Canadians convicted in other countries from returning home to serve their sentences.
Yesterday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in Parliament that the bill "builds upon our government's already impressive track record of cracking down on crime and standing up for victims".
"The bill proposes a fair and balanced approach in allowing victims of terrorism to seek redress," he added. "First and foremost, the proposed legislation would allow any victim of terrorism to sue the perpetrators of terrorism and their supporters. The bill would allow these victims to seek redress for a terrorist act that occurred on or after January 1, 1985."
Vancouver-Kingsway NDP MP Don Davies, however, said in Parliament that nothing in the Conservative crime bill deals with prevention. He noted that 80 percent of people in federal prison suffer from at least one addiction.
"I do not think one has to be a criminologist to realize that if we really want to assist people so that they do not commit an offence once they leave prison, it would be wise to put resources into addressing their addiction," Davies said.
Montaner claimed that the crime bill is "totally counterproductive". He also maintained that it's not supported by evidence, and would put Canada on a path pursued by the Bush administration, which eagerly locked up people convicted of drug offences.
"The level of services that you get within the correctional system are limited," Montaner said. "With the overcrowding that is going to result from this law, it's clear to me that the system is not prepared to absorb the needs of these individuals."
The AIDS doctor said that the billions that the Conservative crime agenda will cost would be better spent on preventing crime and disease. "We could house these people not in jail, but in proper housing," he stated. "Jail is not a housing policy for this country."
The Harper government has appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn a ruling that it would be unconstitutional to close Insite, a supervised-injection facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Earlier this year, Montaner coauthored a paper in the Lancet stating that Insite reduced overdose deaths in the area by 35 percent.
Meanwhile, Murray told the Straight that she convened the meeting in her office to hear from a wide range of organizations with an interest in criminal-justice issues. It was cochaired by Liberal senator Art Eggleton, a former mayor of Toronto.
She claimed that the Conservatives' "punishment agenda" flies in face of good public policy. To support this claim, Murray pointed to California, where spending on the criminal-justice system has risen from three percent of the budget in 1980 to more than 11 percent today.
"The overcrowding in jails, really, is a human-rights issue," the Liberal MP said. "It also leads to more crime in the jails and more crime outside the jails."
She said that this approach is "completely unsustainable", adding that California is reversing its policies because of the prohibitive costs. At the same time, Murray acknowledged that the Canadian public supports a tough-on-crime approach because people want to feel safe and secure.
"It's an emotional issue, but the evidence shows that the current approach that the Conservatives are taking with the mandatory minimums, with jail sentences for a far wider range of acitvities, with the greater difficulty in getting parole—the consequences of those things will be more crime , more poverty, more social injustice," Murray stated. "And it's completely counterproductive, as Dr. Montaner said, to society's efforts to reduce AIDS and treat addiction and mental health as the health issues they are."