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B.C. Will Need More Jail Space For Pot Growers

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
New Federal Legislation Would Create About 700 More Prisoners Every Year

B.C. will have to find space in its already crowded jails for about 700 more marijuana growers each year if new mandatory sentences announced by the Conservative government this week are enacted, an analysis of sentencing figures suggests.

"You basically need a new prison to facilitate that," said Darryl Plecas, a criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley who has studied marijuana sentencing. "You're going to have hundreds, if not thousands, of people going to jail who aren't going now."

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson unveiled legislation that would create mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drug offences, including growing marijuana.

Under the law, someone convicted of growing between one and 200 plants would receive at least six months in jail.

Those with 201 to 500 plants would go to jail for at least a year.

And someone with a growing operation of more than 500 plants would get at least a two-year prison sentence.

The length of all three sentences would increase by 50 per cent if the grower used a rental property for their operation or if they had children in the home.

The new penalties are in sharp contrast to the current situation in B.C. where, according to recent figures, only about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of convicted growers serve any time in jail at all.

Instead, most receive house arrest or a fine.

Based on figures from 2002 to 2004, the most recent data available, about 850 people are convicted of growing marijuana in B.C. each year.

Currently, about 125 of those go to jail, with an average sentence of about six months.

That leaves more than 700 growers a year who aren't going to jail now but, if the new law is enacted, almost certainly will.

According to data collected by Plecas, about 60 per cent of growers caught by police in B.C. have operations of fewer than 200 plants and another 27 per cent have between 200 and 500 plants.

Under the new rules, most of those growers would end up in provincial jails, which handle all those who receive sentences of less than two years.

The problem is B.C.'s provincial jails are already full.

There are 2,735 inmates in provincial jails and about 80 per cent of them are double bunked.

B.C. Corrections spokesman Lisa Lapointe said it can't handle many more because many prisoners -- either because they are violent, or need to be protected from others -- can't be double bunked.

"I'd say we're at the limit," she said. "There's no question that the provincial correctional centres are at capacity."

Lapointe said the agency is planning to open an additional 174 beds by next April, but that's to deal with existing crowding, not any further increase.

"We haven't projected for that at this point," she said. "Honestly, I don't have an answer for you. I'm not sure where we would put 500 inmates."

B.C. Solicitor-General John Les acknowledged housing more inmates will be a challenge, but said he supports the new minimum sentences.

"We'll find a way," he said. "We're not going to let capacity issues stand in the way of appropriately dealing with those who break the law."

Those convicted of running growing operations of more than 500 plants - -- about 13 per cent of all growers in B.C., according to Plecas' research -- would receive a minimum of two years and be sent to a federal prison.

Dennis Finlay, a spokesman with the federal Correctional Service, said it's too early to say how it will respond to the new law but added that federal prisons in B.C. are also pretty full, with 2,015 prisoners.

Finlay said 216 of those prisoners are double bunked in single cells, something the agency tries to avoid for security reasons and because it's less humane for prisoners who must share a 2.5-metre by three-metre cell.

The cost of housing a prisoner is about $57,000 a year in a provincial jail and $88,000 a year in the federal system.

In proposing the new law, Nicholson said he hoped it would help "put organized crime out of business."

But Plecas, who generally supports tougher sentences, said he's doubtful.

He said the new law may deter some people from getting into the marijuana business in the first place.

But he said his research suggests most growers are seasoned criminals with lengthy records, people who are unlikely to be scared off by a few months in jail.

He said the new law may be too tough on first-time growers -- many of whom, he thinks, might be scared away with a simple fine -- while not being tough enough on repeat offenders.

Plecas said he'd rather see Ottawa impose no mandatory sentences for first-time growers and a minimum five-year sentence for a second conviction.

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PRISON CAPACITY IN B.C.

New mandatory sentences for marijuana growers could result in an extra 700 prisoners per year in B.C. -- whose prisons are already at full capacity. Below is the number of cells in each correctional facility in the province. In many cases, prisons have already exceeded their maximum capacity because many prisoners are double bunked.

PROVINCIAL JAILS

Total Cells: 1,911

Fraser Regional Correctional Centre: 422

Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre: 274

North Fraser Pretrial Centre: 490

Prince George Regional Correctional Centre: 232

Surrey Pretrial Services Centre: 199

Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre: 294

FEDERAL PRISONS

Total Cells: 1,855

Kent: 240

Regional Treatment Centre: 192

Pacific Institution: 223

Mission: 238

Mountain: 276

Matsqui: 358

William Head: 140

Ferndale: 138

Kwikwexwelhp Healing Village: 50

( Source: B.C. Corrections, Correctional Service of Canada )

Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2007 The Vancouver Sun
Contact: sunletters@png.canwest.com
Website: canada.com
 
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