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.