About 40% of the Harper government’s recent legislative agenda was devoted to crime laws. Most of these would have created new offences and mandated longer sentences. The Conservative government said this was the way to get violent, repeat offenders off the streets and to fight “guns, gangs and drugs.” On the contrary, the punishment-oriented approach of the government will do nothing to prevent crime. It will, however, bankrupt the treasury while jeopardizing public safety.
Long mandatory sentences and harsh prison conditions do not work as deterrents. Harsher punishments are more likely to increase than to decrease offending. This is because they result in the criminal education of young prisoners and the further hardening of all offenders. Mental illness is exacerbated in prison, while ever-present violence contributes to anti-social tendencies upon release. Centuries of relying upon imprisonment as the solution to crime have proven that it is not only cruel but also counterproductive.
Complex issues like criminal justice require thoughtful, evidence-based solutions, not a simplistic response. By instilling fear in the public, the government hopes to convince voters that harsher measures must be taken. Yet Canada already treats offenders very harshly by comparison to other western democracies. For example, an offender convicted of first degree murder in Canada will serve on average 28.4 years before being released on parole. In the United States, offenders serve on average 18.5 years, while in New Zealand, Scotland and Sweden, the figures are between 11 and 12 years—much less than half the Canadian average.
Crime rates are declining, despite the Conservative government’s claim that they are rising. Statistics Canada is clear on this point. StatsCan has also identified many of the risk factors for crime. It says that demography is a major factor. If there is a large population between the ages of 15 and 24, there is likely to be more crime. Also, high unemployment, high alcohol consumption or shifts in inflation are risk factors. None of these conditions can be solved by prison sentences.
There are many other risk factors for crime. A large proportion of the prison population suffers from treatable conditions: mental illness, drug addiction, sexual or other abuse, illiteracy, homelessness. Far too many inmates are Aboriginal. Far too many are abused women. Poverty is a fact of life for many offenders, and many have a combination of disadvantages. Such offenders need assistance long before they commit an offence, or during their period of incarceration, if we intend to drive the crime rate further down.
Incarceration is emphatically not the answer for any of these conditions. It certainly is not a solution when we consider that incarceration rates in fact bear no relationship to crime rates. For example, in the United States, seven times as many people are incarcerated as in Canada. The U.S. crime rate nevertheless continues to run along the same declining trajectory as Canada’s. Research shows a similar disconnect in other western democracies.
Hard-line Republicans like Newt Gingrich have recognized the folly of over-incarceration and are acting to reverse the very policy decisions that the Harper government is proposing today. Part of the reason for the about-face in the United States is that incarcerating over 2 million people is bankrupting governments.
Here in Canada, one single crime law will cost at least $5.1 billion over 5 years, while stretching the prison system to its limit by adding over 4,000 headcounts to the institutions. Thousands more offenders will be imprisoned under laws which promise to increase sentences for drug offenders, for young offenders, and for many others. The Conservative government has therefore promised billions of dollars for prison construction. The Canadian deficit, which is already a structural deficit, will take another serious hit under this regime.
Just a fraction of the funding dedicated to the tough-on-crime program would provide necessary preventive, rehabilitative, restorative programs. These would prevent crime from happening, would prevent reoffending, and would be of advantage to offenders, victims and the community.
Many respected victims advocates have been vocal on this subject. They reject the government’s tough-on-crime approach. They know that long sentences do not work, and that offenders will eventually be released. They want offenders to be released with some hope of succeeding in society. This is the only way to provide public safety.
Statscan says that 93% of Canadians feel satisfied with their personal safety. We should be rejoicing in this fact and rejecting Conservative efforts to scare us into agreeing with a tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice. If public safety is the goal, then we are already doing many of the right things. More proactive, humane, pragmatic measures are needed to continue to drive the crime rate down. Reactive, retributive, ideological laws will only jeopardize the level of public safety we now enjoy.
Paula Mallea, B.A., M.A., Ll.B, practised criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston, and Manitoba. She acted mainly as defence counsel, with a part-time stint as prosecutor, and spent hundreds of hours in penitentiaries representing inmates. She is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She is the author of The Fear Factor: Stephen Harper's Tough On Crime Agenda.