Pundits’ Platform: Tough on crime?

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Experts debate how to make streets safer

Cops, criminologists and victim’s rights groups agree — if election candidates want to get tough on crime, they should get serious about treatment.

Crime has been a major focus of the Conservatives, with the government tabling what the Office of the Correctional Investigator calls an “unusually high” number of crime-related bills. Those bills, some of which are now law due to opposition support, propose many ‘tough-on-crime’ measures such as tougher parole rules, mandatory minimum sentences and reduced credit for time served. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page put the cost of one of those bills, the Truth in Sentencing Act, in the billions.

Robert Claney, the former deputy chief of police for Edmonton and a St. Albert resident, says he’s torn over this approach to crime. “I know there are people walking out the door every day that shouldn’t be on the street,” he says, but keeping them in jail lets them learn from other criminals.

“You can lock them up,” he says, “but unless you’re going to do something to turn their lives around … nothing’s going to change.”

The cost of deterrence

Most of the Conservative’s recent crime bills focus on keeping prisoners in jail longer. The Tackling Violent Crime Act raised minimum sentences for various gun crimes, for example, while the Serious Time for the Most Serious Crime Act prevented murderers from applying for early parole.

These bills rely on the theory that harsher sentences will deter people from committing crimes, says Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto. The problem, he continues, is that interview studies show most criminals don’t expect to be caught while they’re committing crimes. Without that fear of punishment, there’s no deterrence.

The result, says Liz Elliot, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University with 30 years of experience working directly with prisoners, is more prisoners and more crime. “Longer sentences don’t do anything but warehouse people,” she says, and delay their access to rehabilitative programs, which typically kick in near the end of a sentence.

Kentucky brought in many tough-on-crime measures in the 1980s, she notes, referring to a study by the Pew Centre on the States, such as longer sentences and ‘three-strikes’ laws. That state saw a 250 per cent jump in its imprisonment rate from 1987 to 2007 and a 13 per cent dip in violent crime, far less than the national dip of 23 per cent. New York, in contrast, jailed 15 per cent fewer people from 1997 to 2007 and saw a 40 per cent dip in violent crime, almost twice the national average.

“Everything this government is doing in its crime bills the United States is now recoiling from,” Elliott says, mostly due to cost. Texas, notes the Pew Centre, has decided to pour money into drug treatment programs after years of booming prisons and prison spending, a move expected to save the state up to $443 million over four years.

Get tough on treatment

Longer sentences do keep crooks from reoffending while they’re in jail, says Heidi Illingworth, executive director for the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, and are appropriate for serious crimes such as homicide.

But most criminals eventually get out of jail, she says, and longer sentences can give people more time to get into prison culture, making them worse criminals. “There has to be some discretion left to judges when it comes to sentencing.”

Governments need to shift their investment away from imprisonment and towards rehabilitation, say Claney and Illingworth. Corrections Canada spends more on building upkeep than correctional, educational and vocational programs combined, notes the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Less than a quarter of Canadian prisoners get such rehabilitative treatment on any day, despite the fact that treatment is associated with reducing a prisoner’s risk to reoffend.

Stricter laws are an unwieldy and expensive way of reducing crime, Elliott says. It’s cheaper and more effective to invest in childhood development; every dollar invested in child development from age zero to five saves society $7 in prison costs later, she says, citing information from the American Better Tomorrows group.

Yet pretty much all the parties have supported these tough-on-crime measures, says Doob, with the Liberals, NDP and occasionally Bloc Québécois all helping to pass some of the Conservative’s crime bills. “It’s the easier position to take,” he says — being tough-on-crime appeals to voters.

Tough-on-crime measures take power out of the hands of those who deal directly with criminals — police officers, judges and lawyers — without boosting public safety, Elliott says. “I personally fear what this country is going to look like after 20 years of this.”

Pundits’ Platform

Got an election issue you want examined? Send your ideas to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca, and they might show up in a future column.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.