Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A man with no hands and mandatory minimum sentences

Terry Bazzani could star in an ad campaign about the foolishness of mandatory minimum sentences.
Bazzani has no hands and short arms. He has only half of his left foot. He's had a series of surgeries on his face. He has no criminal record.
And he has pleaded guilty to importing heroin. He was a drug mule; he swallowed heroin capsules in Colombia and flew to Toronto. Police had been tipped off and arrested him.
It's a serious crime. It's also the kind of offence that some politicians would like to see linked to a mandatory minimum sentence. Judges would have no discretion. Anyone guilty would receive a guaranteed term in a penitentiary.
Fortunately, the measures aren't in place. Bazzani will be sentenced later this month, based on the judge's analysis.
The politicians think they can decide the appropriate punishment without knowing about the crime or the people sitting the courtroom - not just the criminal, but the victims too.
But crime circumstances vary. For some offenders, serious prison time might be appropriate - a repeat drug trafficking offender or high-volume importer. A strong deterrent sentence might be needed.
Bazzani has no convictions. He said the smuggling wasn't planned. He traveled to Colombia to see a woman he had met online. He was approached in a bar, offered $10,000 to swallow the drugs and fell for the lure of easy money. (That might not be true of course, but the Crown has offered no evidence to contradict the story.)
And offenders' circumstances vary. Imprisonment is a serious punishment for anyone.
But Bazzani would do spectacularly hard time. No hands, remember? He can't feed himself, except sandwiches. He can't clean himself after going to the bathroom, unless he has a shower. He spent five weeks in pretrial custody and went without brushing his teeth, cleaning himself and ate little food.
And he certainly can't stand up for himself. Which means that in prison he will be a victim, or locked up a protective custody. Bazzani's doctor spends two days a week providing care for inmates at the Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre. The handless man would be in danger in prison, says Dr. James Henry, who said he treats inmates who are victims of violence.
Bazzani illustrates one problem with mandatory minimum sentences. Some people are going to be punished with sentences far out of proportion to their crimes, because judges are fettered with arbitrary, political sentencing rules.
There are other problems. They don't actually reduce crime, for starters.
And they cost taxpayers a fortune as more prisons are built and staffed to house a growing number of inmates.
B.C.'s jails are already overcrowded. The Solicitor General's Ministry service plan says there are "dangerous levels of inmate overcrowding" and reveals prisons are operating at 185 per cent of capacity. The situation "increasingly compromises community and staff safety," the ministry says.
The federal government has passed legislation to impose mandatory minimum sentences for a wider range of drug offences. The Senate is now reviewing the law and the Conservatives have already complained its not moving quickly enough to "get tough on crime."
The Conservatives won't reveal the cost of imprisoning more people as a result of their changes to the Criminal Code. But the government has doubled the capital budget for building new cells. At a minimum, analysts suggest, it will cost more than $100 million a year to lock up the new inmates.
Which might be fine it reduced crime and made Canadians safer.
But it doesn't. The Americans have been down this road. Thanks in part to mandatory minimum sentences, the U.S., on a per capita basis, imprisons six times more of its citizens than Canada. Crime has not been reduced; it is not safer. Just poorer
And more people like Bazzani have ended up in desperate situations behind bars.
Judges - the people who actually hear the evidence and study the laws - are far more likely to impose effective, appropriate sentences than politicians looking for some good headlines.
Footnote: Here in B.C., the problem isn't just jail overcrowding. The Solicitor General's Ministry service plan also notes that the number of offenders under community supervision orders jumped by 10 per cent last year, to 22,000. The increases, without a corresponding increase in staff to ensure offenders obey the rules of their release, are also compromising public safety, the ministry notes.


wstander said...

I don't agree with everything you write Paul, but I hope everyone will agree with me that your contribution through your blog to informed discourse in BC is invaluable.

I hope you have the time and temperament to keep on keeping on.

paul said...

Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated.
And I'd hate for people to agree with everything I write.
I will keep doing this. It makes little sense, really, given the limited number of readers. But it does feel like being part of public discussion that's useful.
And sometimes, you just have to tell the world something.

Kim said...

I read it every day Paul, thank you.

Frank said...

I don't comment here but I check your blog regularly.

Anonymous said...

Ditto the above sentiments Paul.


Anonymous said...

ditto for me - keep it up please.

Jeff said...

Good day Mr. Willcocks,

I was reading your article in the paper today and had a few thoughts.
You stated that mandatory minimum sentences wont reduce crime or make Canadians safer, but never stated why other then to point out that it has not worked in the USA. Ok, fine but whats to say that Americans have done it the best way. Perhaps stronger laws are needed as better deterrent. I don`t know what the answer is however it would appear that you don`t ether. At the very least in this article you have not suggested anything that could be a better solution. Maybe you have in the past, I have not read anything you have posted before. I have no problem with pointing out what is not working or what will not work in any proposal, however to only point fingers and not help to then find the solution seems to me a little short sited. I would really like to here what you think will help solve the problem. I also think that this particular case is a bit of an extrema and that`s fine. However, Mr. Bazzani seems capable enough too use a computer and interment, acquire a plane ticket and fly to South America, socialize with the woman he met online, and spend time in a bar. It seems to me he leads a fairly typical life despite his disabilities and medical needs. I am sure his life is far more difficult then my own there is no debate there. I am unclear as to why this mans physical condition would some how lesson the severity of his crime and choice to swallow heroin capsules. It`s not like someone made him swallow it, he still chose to brake the law. I do think that if minimum sentences were applied there could be an extreme measures claws and a judge could make adjustments to how the sentience is carried out and then have those adjustments subject to a peer review of some sort. The bottom line as I see it, braking the law was a choice and choices have consequences. If a friend, in seemingly good health, went with Mr. Bazzani and came home with the exact same amount of heroin why should there sentences be different. Why would there be any need for Judges to have any discretion? The exact same crime. Health and physical ability should have not barring. The only discretion should be what facilities can be made available to tend to the needs of Mr. Bazzani.

I look forward to reading your solutions.

All the best!

Anonymous said...

I know Terry Bazzani and I can tell you he was an innocent victim.
He really did go overseas to meet a women he met online and was forced to be a drug mule.
It is a sad day when people attack disabled people for being a pawn to criminals.
He reacted out of fear due to these Columbian drug thugs.
He really thought he would never see Canada again if he did not do what these people wanted him to do.
he was afraid for his new lady friend that he just met online.
He really thought that it was his only way to get back to Canada safe.
Maybe the Canadian govenment should be working together with the Columbian gov't to bring the drug thugs down.

paul said...

Hey Anon 11:34;
Could you e-mail me at willcocks@gmail.com. I'm doing a follow column and would like to arrange to speak with you or at least exchange e-mails. Not necessary to quote you; I'd just appreciate the help.

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