Crime, Poverty and the Mistake of the Conservative Punitive Approach.

July 18, 2011

2-minute read

Kudos to Iglika Ivanova for her effort to quantify the costs of poverty in British Columbia. Included in her analysis is a consideration of the relationship between crime and poverty. She correctly points out that poverty is not a cause of crime, but is rather a risk factor for crime. As one example, Newfoundland should have been a hotbed of crime in the 1960s and 1970s if poverty were a cause, but its crime rate was not remarkable.

The connection between poverty and crime is complex, but it does exist. Poverty is a risk factor for crime in much the same way that untreated mental illness, drug addiction, illiteracy, or a history of sexual abuse are risk factors for crime. As well, many poor people experience more than one of these risk factors. Racial background enters into the equation too, since far more Aboriginal people are incarcerated than can be justified by their proportion of the population.

Crimes which cost society the most in measurable dollar terms are often not reported, prosecuted or punished in the same way that dime-store shoplifting is. Ivanova refers to white-collar crime in this connection. One example is the amnesty program currently being offered to wealthy people who have off-shore accounts. Rather than being prosecuted for tax evasion, they are allowed simply to apply for amnesty and pay the taxes owing. There is no threat of prison, and no need to pay the interest. (Canadians as a whole pay for that, through their taxes.)

It is unfortunate that the Harper government’s response to the complex issue of poverty and crime is to ignore the poverty aspect altogether and concentrate on incarcerating more people for longer periods in worse conditions. This approach will cost billions of dollars for new prisons and more law enforcement. Provincial governments will have to pick up the tab for much of the Harper agenda.

A fraction of the funding about to be spent building prisons could usefully be employed to stop crime before it happens, or to ensure that offenders do not offend again. This is the way to curtail crime, and at the same time to alleviate many of the conditions experienced by the poor. It costs $600,000 to build a maximum security cell, and $223,687 per year to operate one (for male inmates). Female federal inmates cost the system $343,810 per year. Contrast this with the cost of alternative preventive programs, which are largely directed at the poor. One program which provided nurses to work with first-time mothers, saved $2 for every $1 spent. Anti-gang programs in North Winnipeg cost only $13,000 per year per youth to operate, and they have proven largely successful in steering youngsters away from crime. Drug treatment courts and mental health courts also cost a fraction of the price of sending people to prison--many of them poor as well as addicted or mentally ill.

Problems of poverty and crime are interwoven and complex. The one-size-fits-all, punitive approach of the Conservative government will not alleviate either. It is important that to continue laying out the tremendous costs, not just of the incidence of crime, but of the scourge of poverty in an otherwise wealthy nation.

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