Getting beyond the "tough on crime" rhetoric

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In my community of Waterloo Region, twelve of the fourteen child care centres that were slated to open in the coming year have now been cancelled. But, while there is no federal money for building the community’s capacity for early learning and child care, there seems to be plenty of money for building new prisons. Perhaps we could convince the Conservatives to fund child care facilities across this country if we promised to put bars on the windows and called them “early childhood detention centres” (suggested marketing slogan: “You’ve earned yourself a time out”).

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious here, but the point about Conservatives priorities is an important one to make. Moreover, the need for more child care spaces is a real one; the need for more prisons is a manufactured one. First of all, crime rates are not increasing. Secondly, to the extent that people are feeling unsafe in their communities, there’s nothing in the Conservative crime bills that will change that.

Despite all of the wailing from the right, there is little evidence of a trend toward Canadian judges handing down lenient sentences. The Criminal Code already contains 29 minimum mandatory sentences, 20 of which were imposed in 1995 for crimes committed with guns. Setting minimum sentences and eliminating the possibility of conditional sentences for violent crimes won’t do much to change the actual sentences handed down.

Let’s be clear; most of those who commit crimes don’t do so because they think that the sentences for those are too short. They do so because they think that they won’t get caught. I suppose it was possible that Vic Toews knew he’d get caught when he broke election financing laws in Manitoba, but didn’t care about the penalty (after all, it didn’t stop him from being embraced by the federal Conservatives and subsequently being appointed as Canada’s Justice Minister). It’s far more likely that he thought that he could break the law and be able to get away with it.

Toews is now the spokesperson for the “get tough on crime” aspect of implementing Stephen Harper’s five priorities. He explained last week that “If you put more people in jail, you have to hold more inmates,” but that eventually, there would be fewer inmates because fewer people would want to commit crimes. But, the experience in the United States is that tougher sentencing laws have only served to make the private prison industry more profitable (and the corporations who benefit are only too happy to reward the politicians who have assisted their growth, while simultaneously lobbying for even tougher laws). While crime rates went down in the three states that Toews cited as models last week (New York, Florida and Virginia), the truth is that crime rates plummeting in all states over the past decade, whether or not they had adopted tougher sentencing laws. Clearly, other factors are at work.

The U.S. prison population has increased by more than four hundred per cent since 1980, currently numbering more than two million. Public spending on prisons has soared to $58 billion a year, up from $9 billion in 1982. In 2003, the U.S. Justice Department released statistics that showed that over 5.6 million people – or 1 in 37 Americans – are either in prison or have served time in prison. By 2010, that number is projected to increase to 7.7 million, or a third of all American adults.

Moreover, the Christian Science Monitor reports that “if current trends continue, it means that a black male in the United States would have about a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it's 1 in 6; for a white male, 1 in 17.” Marc Mauer, who works for The Sentencing Project in Washington, complains that “For the generation of black children today, there's almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison. We have the wealthiest society in human history, and we maintain the highest level of imprisonment. It's striking what that says about our approach to social problems and inequality.”

At an average of 724 citizens per 100,000 members of the American population, the American incarceration rate is the highest in the world by far. And it’s hardly something which Canada should wish to emulate. Even though our incarceration rate (102 per 100,000 people) is less than one seventh of the United States, we are considerably above other countries, such as Germany (98), Iceland (69), and Denmark (61). Statistics Canada reported in 2003 that it costs $86,000 per year to imprison someone in Canada. If we follow the American example, we will soon have a prison population of over one hundred thousand inmates. Any way you do the math, that’s a recipe for decimating the federal treasury.

Even if we could afford it, doubling or tripling the number of prisoners won’t do anything to decrease crime. When people steal cars or hold up convenience stores or shoot someone on a city street, they are doing so because they are either so desperate (usually for money or drugs) or so disconnected from society that they don’t care about the consequences. Wouldn’t it make more sense – both fiscally and practically – to invest money into programs that would keep people from getting desperate and also connect them to society? That might include investing in income support programs, in community activities for youth, in job training and in schools. It should also include investing in child care.
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  1. Posted by: Jesse on May 12, 2006 @ 11:50am

    I'd agree with you that the 'get tough on crime' philosophy won't make much of a difference as a deterrent for future offenders. I don't think people stop to think 'well how many years might I get in prison for this' when they stick a gun in somebody's face.

    Aside from that line of rhetoric, however, I do think mandatory sentences for gun crimes (without the possibility of early parole) is a good thing. To think that you can kill a person, and in some cases be back on the street in less than ten years, is disturbing. On an ethical basis alone I think it's important we don't let that happen.

  2. Posted by: Jesse on May 12, 2006 @ 12:25pm

    "When people steal cars or hold up convenience stores or shoot someone on a city street, they are doing so because they are either so desperate (usually for money or drugs) or so disconnected from society that they don’t care about the consequences."

    You might want to add to that the fact that many kids think it's 'cool' to join the kinds of gangs their hip-hop idols sing about. Or to threaten a person with a gun, again just like their idols sing about.

    Which of course is about the most politically incorrect thing a person could say (yet, ironically, probalby not that far off the mark).

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