The Tories have an opportunity to show they really care about reducing harm to victims by adding a commitment to crime-prevention programs.
On Sept. 20, Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson fulfilled an election promise by introducing the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which toughens prison sentences for certain convicted criminals. Among its nine sections are proposals for more severe punishments for sexual predators of children, drug traffickers, and youth involved in serious violence. The act also provides a stronger role for victims in the parole hearing. What it lacks, however, are sections that would actually prevent crime rather than simply react to it. It also lacks sections that would increase the federal role in providing dignity and services to victims, the majority of whom will not benefit from the current provisions in the bill, since their offenders will not reach a parole hearing.
The act is a retread of nine Tory proposals that were not approved in the previous Parliament. But Nicholson’s justification for the bill is no retread. Surprisingly, he now uses facts to justify the bill. The memorandum announcing the legislation focuses on the number of offences recorded by the police in a single year, including 440,000 violent crimes, 200,000 cases of breaking and entering, and 85,000 cases of impaired driving. Instead of debating whether police are recording fewer crimes, he cites a Statistics Canada report showing that only 31 per cent of victims of crime go to the police. He also draws attention to a government report that demonstrates that victims of crimes suffer $14 billion in tangible losses and another $68 billion in intangible losses to quality of life.
The Mark Newsroom calls out the Tories for their blatant choice of ideology over evidence, prisons over prevention in the crime bill.
Critics have been vocal in their opposition to the bill, particularly the extent to which it will increase federal government expenditures (i.e. in the building of new federal prisons). But what critics have largely failed to point out are the equally important increases it will lead to for municipal and provincial expenditures. Policing costs, for example, have risen from $8 billion in 2002 to $12 billion in 2008, mostly paid for by municipalities out of our property taxes. The number of prisoners held prior to their trial and sentence has also risen from 5,200 in 1995 to 13,500 in 2009. This has led to escalating costs for provinces, as they build prisons such as the 1,600-cell Mimico detention centre in Ontario. Undoubtedly, this bill will add significantly to these problems as operating and capital costs escalate.
Nicholson rebuffs the criticisms that the Conservative government has lost fiscal control of prisons, saying they are small costs relative to the billions in harm suffered by victims of crime. He assumes that further increases in reactive measures will incapacitate or deter enough offenders so as to curb crime and better meet the needs of victims. As I argued in a previous article in The Mark, there is little evidence that traditional criminal-justice approaches are at all effective in reducing crime – and there is little in this bill that will achieve significant reductions in the number of victims Canada sees each year.
Most victims want crime stopped. That is, they want effective prevention of crime before they are victimized. They want safety, reparation, and to be heard. Other than harsher punishments for offenders, a provision for victims to participate in parole hearings, and the possibility of victims suing in terrorism cases, there is nothing in this bill that will bring our patchwork of services and rights for crime victims in Canada up to international standards.
The Harper government has a majority in the House of Commons, so this bill will almost certainly be approved within 100 days. Instead of resorting to criticizing the bill ad nauseum, why don’t opposition MPs work to add something positive to the bill that will help victims, taxpayers, and the overstretched professionals in the criminal-justice system?
There are many examples of effective crime-prevention programs and respect for victims’ rights programs already in operation in Canada and elsewhere that we could apply comprehensively. Consider the following:
- In Scotland, violent assaults are prevented by the Violence Reduction Unit;
- In south-western Ontario, sexual assaults are prevented by a core curriculum in schools called the Fourth R: Relationship-Based Violence Prevention;
- In Montreal, breaking and entering is prevented by a program called Tandem; and
- In Winnipeg, car thefts are prevented by an Auto Theft Suppression Strategy.
These, and many other programs, are not only effective, but are also remarkably more cost-effective approaches to reducing crime than initiating minimum sentences and building prisons. For instance, the Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy originally received a $50-million investment, which has been repaid, and it now saves the city $40 million per year.
Read more from Irvin Waller on the best approach to stopping flash robs: investing in prevention programs.
Other jurisdictions in Canada understand the advantages of preventive approaches to crime. In 2007, Alberta reacted to public frustration with criminal-justice policies by establishing a task force. Yes, Albertans were frustrated with lax sentencing, but they were also frustrated with the lack of attention to the causes of crime – poor parenting, lack of programs for kids at risk, mental illness, alcohol abuse, and more. The task force developed a comprehensive strategy involving smart criminal-justice efforts, services for the mentally ill, and youth crime-prevention strategies within a sustained and long-term framework. Alberta must be doing something right, as Saskatchewan announced a similar framework last week. So why hasn’t our federal government done the same?
Instead of simply criticizing a crime bill that is almost certain to be approved, why don’t members of Parliament propose adding a short non-partisan section that advances crime prevention – making this an addition to, rather than a replacement of, the bill itself. Why not suggest a permanent and cost-effective “crime-reduction board” to lead the federal government’s efforts to prevent crime, reduce victimization, and promote victims’ rights? Investing in prevention would meet the Tories’ concerns for recognizing the rights of crime victims, as well as fiscal critics’ arguments for spending our taxes smartly, while using evidence-based programs to achieve what we all want: a reduction in crime.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.