Are tougher penalties for gang members the answer for making Canadians safer?

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Andrew Scheer announces plan to tackle gang-related crime in Canada
Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer announced on Thursday the first of three policy pillars in his plan to combat firearm and gang-related crime in Canada, that will put an end to the "revolving door prison system." – Nov 8, 2018

Dozens of handguns, bags of deadly drugs and confiscated cash were on display at a news conference in June after police laid more than 1,000 charges against 75 suspected members and associates of a Toronto-based gang.

Since 2013, gang-related homicides in Canada’s largest cities have almost doubled, Public Safety Canada says.

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s solution to the scourge of gang crime focuses on strict law enforcement and creating new penalties.

He says the Conservatives will put an end to “the revolving door” for gang members by making it easier for police to target them and put them where they belong: behind bars.

“Canadians deserve to feel safe where they live. A Conservative government will deal swiftly and firmly with gang crime as part of our overall plan for a safer Canada,” said Scheer in a news release on Nov. 8.

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But will his plan make Canadians safer?

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Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of “a lot of baloney.” Here’s why.

A lot of baloney

The Conservative proposal includes five elements.

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First, Scheer proposes ending automatic bail for gang members, to ensure arrested repeat gang offenders remain in custody

Second, his plan vows to identify gangs in the Criminal Code, much like the existing list of terrorist organizations, to help speed up prosecutions.

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Third, he wants to revoke parole for gang members, sending them back to jail if they associate with other known members.

His proposal also suggests creating tougher sentences for ordering gang crime, including mandatory sentences in federal prison for directing crimes.

As well, it would require new sentences for committing and ordering violent gang crime to come with mandatory sentences in federal prison.

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However, criminal-justice experts say elements of the Conservative blueprint either duplicate existing measures or would be struck down as unconstitutional, and ignore the kind of measures shown to be effective in dealing with gang-related crime.

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“Overall, it seems to be written by someone who has either little knowledge of the criminal process, or it’s trying to mislead people about the process,” said Kate Puddister, an assistant professor of political science at Ontario’s University of Guelph.

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Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, added that, “It is very lamentable that the leader of the Opposition has chosen to engage in a Trumpian style of rhetoric, chastising the government through either deliberate distortion, or a more fundamental ignorance of existing law.”

Here’s how their critiques break down for each of Scheer’s proposals.

Ending automatic bail for gang members.

While bail is not automatic, it is generally allowed as a constitutional right unless public safety would be endangered by releasing the accused.

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However, for some offences, including those involving a firearm or a gang – known as a “criminal organization” in the Criminal Code – the accused must show why their detention is not justified.

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Simply outlawing bail for gang members would result in “a pretty strong constitutional challenge,” Puddister said.

Identifying gangs in the Criminal Code.

The Criminal Code, while not listing specific groups, defines a criminal organization as a group of three or more people with the purpose of committing serious offences for material benefit.

Experts say prosecutors rightly have the burden of proving gang activity.

The question of whether a group of individuals is an organized crime network “is not one that can simply be assumed,” Boyd said.

Revoking parole for gang members.

Release on parole is never guaranteed, and the Parole Board of Canada must assess an offender’s risk when they become eligible.

Offenders on parole must obey the law and follow standard conditions, such as reporting regularly to a parole officer.

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The parole board can also impose special conditions, and has the power to revoke release if the conditions are breached.

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The Conservative proposal “implies that the people working in the system are stupid,” said Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

Tougher sentences for ordering gang crime.

The Criminal Code states that a member of a criminal organization who instructs someone to commit an offence for their benefit is guilty of an indictable offence and could receive a life sentence.

There is considerable academic research that shows mandatory minimum sentences “don’t really work and have disproportionate effects on minority communities and vulnerable people,” Puddister said.

“Simply because there’s no minimum doesn’t mean judges won’t apply a restrictive sanction.”

Adds Waller: “Mandatory minimums are not a silver bullet.”

All this aside, many firearm offences already carry mandatory penalties.

New sentences for violent gang crime.

Penalties in the gang section of the Criminal Code range from as much as five years to life in prison.

“If we want to stop those involved in organized crime, who are not afraid of using deadly force against each other, the answer is not in changing already severe penalties, but in increasing the likelihood of arrest and conviction, and working to prevent involvement in these kinds of activities in the first instance,” Boyd said.

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Given those concerns, what other approaches are available?

Waller said the Conservative plan doesn’t include any of the things that are proven to significantly reduce gang-related violence in other communities.

As an example, he pointed to Glasgow, Scotland, where the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence has seen success by establishing a partnership among police, social services, educators, housing officials and the public.

The initiative makes services and programs available to violent street-gang members who agree to change their lives and devote themselves to constructive work.

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The U.S. National Institute of Justice says evaluations of gang-prevention programs show success flows from working with the local community, engaging city leaders, partnering with social service agencies and involving community members who have the respect of local gang leaders and members.

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In Canada, about 180 people took part in a national meeting on gun and gang violence convened in March by the Liberal government.

Among the recommended measures were initiatives that look beyond the immediate problem to address the roots of violence through a holistic, healthy-communities approach.

The verdict

The Conservative proposals to end gang activity focus on increasing penalties and locking up members for longer periods, based on the notion existing approaches are too soft on offenders.

Criminal-justice experts say existing penalties and parole provisions are stiff enough. In addition, public safety officials in Canada and abroad emphasize the need for a much broader approach to gang-related crime – one that includes direct intervention with gang members and tailored programming.

For these reasons, the Conservative assertion that its plan would make Canadian communities safer is “a lot of baloney.”

Baloney Scale Chart


The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians.

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Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

No baloney – the statement is completely accurate.

A little baloney – the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.

Some baloney – the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.

A lot of baloney – the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.

Full of baloney – the statement is completely inaccurate.

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