Sean Fine details five changes to the Canadian justice system that the Conservative government has brought about via legislation since 2006.
Appropriate Subject Area(s):
Social studies, history, current events
Key Questions to Explore:
- How has new legislation changed the justice system since 2006?
Parole, mandatory minimums, incarceration, faint-hope clause
Introduction to lesson and task:
The modern federal Conservative Party—not to be confused with the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party—came to power in part by promising to be “tough on crime.” Although crime rates had been falling for years, the Conservatives and their core supporters argued that previous federal governments were soft on criminals while ignoring victims and it set out to change that. In fact, in 2006, when the Conservatives first took office, the Canadian crime rate was the lowest in 25 years.
Eight years later, the Conservatives have largely achieved their goals. More minimum sentences and more restrictions on parole, among other provisions, are now law. As a result, the current rate of incarceration in Canada has risen to such an extent that prisons are now seriously overcrowded, according to the Auditor-General’s report, and the additional cost to Canadian taxpayers is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. As for the crime rate, it has continued to fall at about the same rate since 1998, although the number of violent crimes has fallen more rapidly in recent years.
Students will work in groups to use the article provided to develop positions for or against some or all of these changes to the justice system.
Action (lesson plan and task):
Engage students in a short Q&A to determine how much they already know about changes to the justice system. Here are some questions you could use (answers in parentheses):
- Imagine that your grandfather brought a pistol home from World War II. Ever since then, he’s kept it loaded and hidden under his bed. If the police were to find it, under current law, what would happen to your grandfather? (Mandatory three years in prison)
- A friend of yours thinks it’s cool to try to grow marijuana, thinking “It’s practically legal these days.” She has six small plants started on her window sill. The police see them and arrest her. What will happen to her? (Mandatory six months in prison)
- How long have the laws that could put your friend and your grandfather into prison been in place— 50 years, 20 years, 10 years or two years? (Two years)
- Have crime rates in Canada gone down or up over the past 30 years? (They have gone down, considerably)
Next, provide students with copies of the article and organize them into five groups and assign one of the five changes to the justice system, as per the article. Task each group with the following:
Read the introduction to the article as well as the section your group is to address. Answer these questions—and be prepared to summarize your answers orally at the end of class.
- What is the fundamental change to the justice system in this section? How is it different?
- How did the law work previously and how does it work now?
- What are the effects of this law?
- What kind of cost is associated with this change?
Next, discuss this in your group to see if you can come to a consensus (such that you all agree, but not necessarily all to the same degree) on answers to these questions:
- Do you think the new law means that society will be safer for law-abiding citizens?
- Do you think the cost of the law is good value for taxpayers, given its effects?
- Do you think victims of crime are better served by this new law?
- If you have time, discuss these two propositions and see if you can agree on which one your group supports the most:
- The primary purpose of imprisonment is to punish criminals and to deter others from committing crimes;
- Imprisonment should be the last option for criminals and rehabilitation the first option since, eventually, most criminals will be released back into society.
Consolidation of Learning:
In the final 15 minutes of class time, ask each group to report. Note which, if any, of the recent changes to the justice system are supported or not supported by each group. Conclude with a show of hands to indicate which of the two propositions they tend to agree with more. Continue the discussion as time permits.
- Students will have completed their group assignments; reports will reflect careful consideration of the issues; actual consensus is achieved or at least, students now understand what it means to achieve consensus.
- Assign a short—two paragraph—writing task for homework, asking students to argue for their personal position on the new laws based on the article and on their group work.