The Scourge of His Convictions
CPC leader Pierre Poilievre wants to get tougher on car thieves. His latest policy ideas are an exercise in cruel, costly symbolism.
It was inevitable that we’d advance to the ‘tough on crime’ stage of the Conservative Party’s election-readiness program at some point. As auto-thefts persist across the country, and surge in some regions, car thieves are easy-pickings for Poilievre. He’s now promising that a Conservative government would end house arrest options for convicted auto thieves and introduce a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of a third offence, a jump from the current six-month term. He’s also promising harsher penalties for thefts related to organized crime.
On the face of it, the reforms will come across are perfectly reasonable to many. In 2022, thieves stole over 100,000 cars. That caught the attention of the insurance industry, who had to pay out $1.2 billion in claims, which they say is triple what they forked out in 2018. It’s worrying Canadians, too.
Losing a car is a tremendous pain in the ass; it’s costly and to the extent violence or the threat of violence is present, it’s something far worse. The Insurance Bureau of Canada argues that insofar as proceeds from thefts fund organized crime, there are deeper risks. And while I’m constitutionally inclined to be sceptical of arguments coming from corporate lobbies, they raise an entirely fair point. People are worried about auto-thefts and ought to be. But giving in to ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and policies isn’t going to fix the problem.
Targeting auto-thieves is a shrewd political move for Poilievre, though. The news is full of stories of crime rings and anecdotes about stolen vehicles popping up all over the place. Many Canadians know a victim of a car theft or they’ll have experienced it themselves. The knee-jerk, ‘common sense’ reaction it thus to want to go hard after the thieves — a reaction Poilievre is counting on.
The problem with Poilievre’s approach is that mandatory minimums don’t work and those desperate enough to resort to stealing cars aren’t going to be thinking about where they’ll serve a prison sentence they don’t expect to be burdened with. Plus, police have a poor record at stopping auto-theft or catching thieves in the first place.
A report written for the Department of Justice summarizes the arguments against mandatory minimums, noting, among other concerns, that
Critics of MMPs have argued that some penalties violate the Charter, that MMPs are an expensive and ineffective way to control crime, that by removing judicial discretion, MMPs make sentencing less transparent, and that MMPs disproportionately affect racial minorities, such as Indigenous Canadians.
Mandatory minimums fail to reduce crime, though they do cost the state more money. In 2020, Michael Spratt took Conservative leader Erin O’Toole to task over this plan to go all-in on mandatory minimums. He ran down the evidence, pointing out that minimums aren’t about justice: they don’t serve public safety or don’t deter crimes or make victims of crime whole. Moreover, certain manifestations of them are unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court found.
The John Howard Society of Canada raises similar arguments against mandatory minimums. So too does the Brennan Center for Justice. In a post for the organization law professor Alison Siegler argues “The principle that underlies mandatory minimums is dehumanization.” In short, the cruelty is the point, divorced from any hope of long-term downward trends in crime rates or the determinants of crime.
Poilievre is walking the path trod by Conservative leaders before him. O’Toole bought the mandatory minimum bunk. The Harper era was marked by a tough on crime agenda, including minimums, that the courts spent years picking apart. It’s all very familiar.
Meanwhile, core social, cultural, and economic determinants of criminal activity seem to be off the radar for Poilievre. Desperation, poverty, and structural marginalization, for instance, drive crime but don’t seem to feature prominently in conservative discourse on the matter. Of course, it’s much easier to talk about getting tough on crime than it is to face ourselves in the mirror and ask what we and our institutions are collectively doing to produce criminals in the first place. It’s also harder to scare people into voting for you this way.
There are policies and approaches that could reduce auto-theft without resorting to costly, cruel, and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing. Manufacturers could make vehicles harder to steal and the federal government could get serious about inspecting ports and shipping containers, the routes by which many cars are sent overseas for sale after being stolen. But these are dispassionate, sensible, and unsexy approaches that won’t rile up voters like preaching from the gospel of ‘tough on crime’, so don’t expect them to dominate headlines and stump speeches – and don’t expect the problem to get better any time soon.