Canada’s War on Crime

With the parliamentary session coming to a close and summer getting ready to obliterate any residual interest in politics, this is pretty much our last chance before the fall to have a serious look at where our government proposes to take us over the next four years. We have seen the Speech From the Throne (SFT) and the first budget, and with few exceptions, it is all pretty much what we expected. The media have generally described the SFT and budget as workmanlike, safe, “ho-hum”. It is, the argument goes, no more nor less than what we were promised and pretty much what about 40 percent of us voted for: continued tax reductions, smaller government, and a focus on crime and security. Nothing to get worked up over, no risky or costly national projects, no meddling with cherished national programs such as medicare. Opposition politicians are having trouble figuring out just how to push back: all the parties want to be and be seen as fiscally prudent; nobody is about to argue for big government or tax increases, except on the margins for corporate tax increases; and nobody will risk being seen as soft on crime.  In fact, the government’s unprecedented decision to forego debate on its SFT, breaking a tradition that dates back to before Confederation, got barely a whisper of attention. Budget bills were rushed through committee.  Even the government’s fiercest critics seem more worried about what might be in store over the coming four years of Canada’s first majority Conservative government than they are about the proposals now before us.

But what is before us now is anything but benign. While the rest of government shrinks, our crime control and security establishment grows and with this so too do the authority and reach of government. In an agenda that promises less government interference in our private decisions we get government that is more present and intrusive than ever.  All governments must attend to issues of security and every government has worked to prevent crime and reduce its economic and human costs, but never before has crime had the central place that it now holds. It was the issue that ate up the majority of the time of our parliamentarians before the election and the omnibus crime bill signals more of the same. Crime and punishment have become a – or, perhaps, the – defining issue of our government, and the tone — the unrelenting focus on punishment, expanding prison and police powers — represents a profound break from policies of all previous Canadian governments.

The approach and many of its specific measures seem to draw their inspiration from the “war on crime” launched in the U.S.  some four decades -  just after the “war on poverty” but with much more enduring commitment.   If that is the case, if that is the path we propose to follow, then what is happening here is about much more than crime and security.  It is about our view of society, of human nature, of the future, and of the role of the state in shaping that future. It signals a new relationship between Canadians and their government.  And before we go too far along that path, we ought to have a close look at what that view of this world looks like and what the consequences of its pursuit are for our safety, our society, and our democracy.

Of course there will be many who, against all the evidence and all the experts, say, hold on there, this government is simply responding to a real problem – rising crime, violence and threats to our security – and high time. Some will point to stories of horrible victimization, and suffering to which none of us is immune, and others will remind us of the Vancouver riots or other incidents that inevitably shake and confuse us. The human and financial costs of crime are profoundly real and deserve government attention always.  But our approach ought to be guided by the best available evidence.

When the U.S. launched its war on crime, crime and violence were in fact on the rise, assassinations and riots were shaking American confidence, and more and more pundits were talking about a culture of violence. Some response was necessary. But even there and then, the decision to make crime an organizing theme and to focus on punishment was a political decision. Crime and violence were on the rise in Canada too and Canadian politicians of all stripes opted for a more balanced approach even in the face of public pressure, as we are inevitably influenced by what is going on to the south. Nobody would accuse Margaret Thatcher of being soft on anything, but she too resisted pressures to expand incarceration. Why? Because it’s too expensive and it doesn’t work.

It is even tougher to understand the current Canadian approach as it comes at a time when crime and its severity have been declining, year after year.  While inevitably short of unanimity, there is a remarkable consensus among the experts. They would pretty much agree that we should continue to adjust our punishments, improve our interventions, learn from our mistakes, but that, on the whole, we are doing pretty well, there is no crime crisis and, most important, punitive approaches will just make things worse. So what is the war really all about?

If we look at what happened in the U.S., a strong case can be made that this was part of the shift away from the elements of welfare state introduced through the “New Deal” and expanded through Johnson’s “Just Society”.  Conservatives had long fought these welfare initiatives arguing that they contributed to moral laxity, sloth and dependency, and even crime.  With growing public insecurity and pessimism about the future and declining trust in government, this view or some variant has been on the ascendancy. The war on crime offered an alternative basis for government authority: instead of promises of shared opportunity or social justice, a term now uttered by only wild-eyed lefties, instead of protection from the ravages of economic change and deteriorating environment, government offered something new.   This new compact offered protection from bad things and bad people, from external threats to security and internal threats to safety, but more than this, it offered moral clarity and shared outrage.

This change in tone is evident in the words of then President Nixon whose omnibus “safe streets” bill is often seen as the first strike in the war on crime.  “Americans in the last decade,” he said, “were often told that the criminal was not responsible for his crimes against society, but that society was responsible. I totally disagree with this permissive philosophy.” That “last decade” was the sixties when criminal justice was guided by three imperatives: just punishment certainly, but also the collective interest in public safety, and the collective responsibility to reintegrate offenders into society. Punishment, rehabilitation and prevention – in some mix – was the old way.  The new way, based on pessimism about the future and about people’s ability to change, emphasized individual responsibility over collective responsibility, punishment over prevention and rehabilitation, and order and control over individual freedom and civil liberties.

One of the most comprehensive assessments of the decades-long war that followed is Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime, a devastating critique of American policy and, for us, perhaps a cautionary tale. Simon tells us that the policy not only drew on the fears of Americans, fears about crime, fears about the future, fears of “the other”, it validated and nurtured those fears. And, in so doing, created a self-perpetuating machine. Tough could never be tough enough. It wasn’t enough to take away an offender’s freedom, hard time had to become harder and longer. Any new incident, every grizzly crime begged for more intense punishment, more people in jail for longer. When crime continued to rise, that called for more of the same, redouble the punishments, build more prisons. That’s how policies that just about nobody believes make any sense – three strikes and your out, for example – become law.  A self-perpetuating machine.

And the outcome of all this? According to Simon, this approach created a cycle of fear that has reshaped American life. Fear matters. It diminishes our quality of life, eats away at our freedom, and turns us away from others. It makes trust more difficult and without trust, even minimal solidarity becomes impossible.   The gated community patrolled by private police has become the symbol, the architectural manifestation of fear, division and inequality.

And it seems that here too fear of crime is high and rising especially among my generation of Canadians. What we know about crime is rarely based on systematic review of data. That’s not our job. We don’t have the time or training. What we know is drawn from our direct experience and from what we hear in the media and from our leaders. Little wonder that most of us believe that crime and violence are on the rise. That is what we naturally make of the media accounts, the endlessly repeated images and stories of the most horrible crimes, however rare, that stay in our minds and shape our perceptions.  Even more important, what else are we to conclude when governments make crime the number one priority and continually remind us to be angry and afraid.

The traditional balanced approach to crime allowed our political leaders to take crime and fear seriously without feeding those fears. For decades criminologists and practitioners have tried to counter the myths about crime and punishment but this now seems a losing battle. Simply, fear trumps evidence. We are all more likely to hear, believe and remember information that confirms our biases. In her 1997 study of public opinion and perceptions of crime in the U.S., Katherine Beckett showed that fear of crime did not lead public policy, it was the other way around. Tough on criminals policy creates the perception that rising crime is a serious problem, that we ought to be afraid. And the inevitably escalating government action simply continues to feed those fears.  Breaking the cycle is very hard. California’s current governor tried to pass bizarre legislation tying prison spending to education spending as something of an admission that he was helpless to do anything about the shift of scarce resources from health, education and welfare to prisons.  His frustration is understandable – California spends 45% more on prisons than on higher education.  This is not a path we want to follow.

And did the approach reduce crime and improve safety? A number of states are now proposing to modify or undo policies we are preparing to introduce, policies like mandatory minimum sentences, because they were seen to make things worse. Republican and Democratic voices are growing louder that the war language and approach are counter-productive. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. congressman, crime hawk, and former head of the U.S. drug enforcement agency, is now saying that we in Canada should avoid their mistakes, singling out often unfair mandatory minimum sentences and insufficient investment in preparing prisoners for reintegration. World leaders and increasing numbers of practitioners, judges and police, are asking for an end to the expensive war on drugs that has funded the expansion of organized crime, terrorism and exploitation but has done nothing to reduce drug use, crime or violence.  Vincente Fox, former president of Mexico, now tells Time that he had it exactly wrong when he launched his war on drugs, which resulted only in greater violence and suffering.

This relentless war on crime has resulted not in safety but in mass imprisonment where warehousing and control replace rehabilitation and education. Prison inherits the consequences of our inattention to inequality and social injustice. Low level users, generally the poor, often the troubled, and always a racially skewed population, fill the prisons and become a permanent under-class. Sickness and suicide become the norm. Offenders leave worse off than when they arrived, creating ever greater risk to the public. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Supreme Court recently stepped in and ordered thousands released from California prisons no longer able to contain the numbers of prisoners the war produced. Conditions are shocking, said the Court, who pointed to Canada’s balanced approach as a model of safety and human rights. Asa Hutchinson is right. We ought to learn from the experience of our neighbours. We ought also to learn from our own past successes.

Canada is not so deeply into this cycle of fear that we cannot avoid its worse excesses. Let’s be clear. Our system has always been pretty tough. We have consistently used prison more and had longer sentences than our European counterparts, and our sentencing laws have always tried to fit the punishment to the crime. But we have also always asked how best to administer punishment so that rehabilitation and the eventual reintegration of offenders are most likely. We all know that there are some types of crime where we do not have much success, but overall the success rate has been good and getting better. We have documented stories of lives turned around, here, for example, and here. Rehabilitation and reintegration – and increasingly restorative justice – are not about coddling; they are about the need to complement just punishment with a commitment to public safety and human rights.

Every war brings collateral damage and the casualties of this war are many. What we get is a more powerful, authoritarian and intrusive state, a more fearful and fragmented society, and a profound erosion of our freedom and the deepening of inequality. The issues are too big to pass in silence.   Our political leaders may not want this debate so let us take up the challenge and insist that, when Parliament returns, our representatives scrutinize the omnibus bill with more rigour than they gave the government’s agenda this spring .

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