This post follows a response to the Ottawa Citizen article from earlier today:
… which, in turn, follows this historic Supreme Court ruling from last year:
So here’s the TL;DR for anyone who’s not been following the issue: the Bedford case ended with a ruling by the Court that Canada’s current laws addressing 3 key aspects of prostitution are unconstitutional, and that they, in and of themselves, have the effect of creating grossly disproportionate safety risks and other problems for the prostitutes themselves. The SCC struck down the laws and gave Parliament 12 months to rewrite this legislation.
So far, news of any follow-up has been sparse, but of the few stories that have come to light about what Parliament intends to do, most highlight the so-called Nordic model of prostitution, which by logical extension of targeting clients of prostitutes who identify themselves, it is argued the system may create even more dangerous working conditions for prostitutes, as it would become harder for them to safely screen their clients. As for a transitional (read: rehabilitation) model, our lawmakers don’t yet seem to have anything of substance on the table. At the very least, Canada would need a humane ‘career bridge’ making available transitional housing, educational funds, and other resources necessary to retrain those in the field of prostitution who opt for a career switch. The famous German prostitute-to-nurse brigade is a good example of such a system in action, as well as how it could look if implemented on our own soil.
On the other hand, Germany’s comparatively open attitude towards prostitution has been noted in studies as having opened that country up to a greater share of human trafficking. This is an extremely important counterpoint to consider in our own cultural context as it highlights the gray zone of sensitivities that exist around this issue with no absolutely clear or immediate answer. Only by participating in deep, detailed study of each facet of this gray zone can we hope to see our lawmakers alleviate more problems than they create when crafting the new legislation.
The important point as things stand now is to raise awareness of the issue. Prostitution is not viewed as a ‘vote getter’ by most and does not have a huge demographic behind it, yet it affects far more than its own segment of the population when it comes to how prostitutes negotiate services, how transactions occur, what laws govern it, and what safety mechanisms can be enacted to provide security of the person.
It’s a hugely important issue because the law has in the past marginalized these women and placed them in harm’s way. We owe them at least the benefit of not allowing that to continue as a matter of fundamental human dignity. It would be a grave wrongdoing to repeat the same mistake by permitting lawmakers to inadvertently coat any new legislation designed to address this issue in the murk of ignorance as the result of too little research or societal awareness.
MPs should be compelled to research the issue more thoroughly across world cultures, including precedents set in other legal systems. From a legislative perspective, 12 months is a comparatively tiny window — and I fear it may be far too small for us as a country to effectively comprehend an issue for which the new laws will have an effect that can last for generations.
Meanwhile … elsewhere in Parliament:
And here we have another problem facing us: our current federal government crafting legislation promoted in the news as “tough on crime” but often bound to inadequate planning and several distinct problems of its own. I predict these will be a future invitation to other significant challenges in the Supreme Court of Canada years down the road, but for now let’s look at one particular issue that bothers me.
The perspective that is not being taken into account often enough under the current administration has been one of examining something called the total cost of ownership. Owning a justice system means owning not just the immediate concerns the system is designed to alleviate, but also any consequences and implications it could create for society 30 to 50 years down the road, since rarely do you see immediate changes when it comes to critical issues and legislative changes such as these.
It takes about a full generation or longer for our social environs to fully adjust to any major changes in law, as well as the attitudes of individuals to effectively stabilize under the new structures being imposed. This road goes both ways, however, and progressive attitudes toward law also take about a generation to bring to bear in realizing more effective, humane, and proactive legislation. Nowhere has this point been made clearer in recent weeks than in the massive shift of attitude Canada’s highest court has displayed when examining the topic of prostitution (see above). I’d wager that if this challenge had been made in 1994, the result wouldn’t come close to what was achieved here and now. Likewise, many similar shifts of attitude can be seen in other aspects of our culture. The legal landscape has changed in Canada, slowly but surely.
When it comes to formulating a solution to crime, we have to look at the bigger picture, the number of people affected, the total cost of dealing with not just the offence and those immediately involved, but also its manifold interactions with families, friends, social groupings, businesses, schools, industry, and a great many other entities. Crime does not happen in a vacuum, nor can it be properly be resolved in an environment far removed from humanity and natural consequences.
In the case of Parliament’s current dilemma, we desperately need to ask ourselves what enacting ‘tough’ new mandatory minimum sentences actually does to serve the greater interests of our society as a whole. I’m talking about the long term here, not the tentative, oversimplified ‘victim-and-offender’ paradigm many officials have pointed at in talking points when cornered by the media.
Mandatory minimums are a cheap ‘feel good’ remedy applied for quick gratification by politicians who are loathe to grapple with the true dynamics of crime, poverty, housing, education, rehabilitation, addiction, ostracism, marginalization, and integration. The concept short-circuits meaningful discussion, precludes a more humane approach to legal administration, and muzzles effective dialogue by tying judges’ and legislators’ hands, preventing them from applying smarter solutions that could offer better service to our culture and country over the long term.
Mandatory minimums have already demonstrated themselves to be a staggering failure in places like Texas, which began the shift away from such policies after the very substantial and well-documented levels of collateral damage inflicted on society became visible — too many broken homes, over-militarization of police forces, wildly increased incarceration rates, high recidivism (re-offending), higher policing costs, the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, government spending overruns, higher taxation, the private prisons scandal (penal and judicial corruption), and the increased cost to rehabilitate an increasing number of mild or nonviolent offenders who have been exposed to a highly toxic, infinitely more dangerous penal system.
All these and more are the real-world, factually documented products of owning a justice system that makes itself ‘tough on crime’ at the expense of outcome, community, ethos, and administrative responsibility.
The big picture is what we need to concern ourselves with, not the momentary doses of ‘feel good’ provided by euphoric press conferences, fancy speeches, or temporary solutions based on beliefs lacking sound scientific and humanist foundations. For a brief time, the short-term solutions may work, but ultimately their implementation comes at steep cost to the rest of us.
There lies the un-sexy downside of mandatory minimums — it’s not so much a deterrent as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy or a revolving door. The system is forced to deal with what it creates, like it to or not, and that’s why we need to equip ourselves better to think and deal in such complexities. Ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, we’re going to reap what our justice system has sown in the present, and if the system has not effectively done its job, future generations will be saddled with added criminality and disenfranchisement.
Is that the kind of country we want? Are those the kinds of attitudes we want our children to be raised with?
While it’s nice to know that the Supreme Court stands firm on matters of equality, responsibility, long term results, ethics, and progress, we can do a lot better and get a lot more done outside of the court system when it comes to managing and overseeing the way that laws are written — it begins with you and I, and it involves communicating with our Members of Parliament.
We need to raise awareness about these issues. Please take some time out of your busy day to do your part and pass the word on. We’re all in this together!