A Curious Priority for the Government of Canada

by Donald MacPherson on June 5, 2011

The Harper government says fighting crime is a priority for Canadians and an omnibus crime bill will be introduced in the first 100 days this parliament. This bill will cost taxpayers billions of dollars in increased prison, courts and policing costs with no evidence that these expenditures will lead to safer communities. This poll suggests Canadians have a different view of what is important in the next budget.

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This Nanos/IRPP poll, which was done in May suggests that Canadians have a lot on their minds other than the Conservative crime agenda, an agenda that is poorly thought out, extremely expensive and from all the research that I have seen, including the government’s own papers, won’t actually work to improve public safety one bit. This Justice Department paper on mandatory minimums states: “Drug consumption and drug related crime seem to be unaffected in any measurable way by severe mandatory minimum sentences. Both mathematical modeling techniques and field work arrive at the conclusion that treatment-oriented approaches are more cost effective than harsh prison terms.”

When asked what is most important in the top five categories in the poll Canadians seem to want their new government to focus on much more tangible and measurable goals such as creating jobs, reducing the deficit, improving health care and of course finding ways to cut taxes while achieving the first three. Why is our government so determined to try and address drug problems with legislative solutions that have been proven not to work. Maybe they will reconsider this when light is shone on the consequences of going down this road.  In the U.S. there has been reams of research on the experience south of the border with mandatory minimum sentencing practices over the past 20 years. Check out the Sentencing Project to learn about the failure of these policies in the U.S.

The crime agenda was addressed in Thursday’s Throne Speech. Here is an excerpt:

Here for law-abiding Canadians

The Government of Canada has no more fundamental duty than to protect the personal safety of our citizens and defend against threats to our national security.

Our Government will move quickly to reintroduce comprehensive law-and-order legislation to combat crime and terrorism. These measures will protect children from sex offenders. They will eliminate house arrest and pardons for serious crimes. They will give law enforcement officials, courts and victims the legal tools they need to fight criminals and terrorists. Our Government will continue to protect the most vulnerable in society and work to prevent crime. It will propose tougher sentences for those who abuse seniors and will help at risk youth avoid gangs and criminal activity. It will address the problem of violence against women and girls.

Our Government has always believed the interests of law-abiding citizens should be placed ahead of those of criminals. Canadians who are victimized or threatened by crime deserve their government’s support and protection, and they should have the right to take reasonable steps to defend themselves and their property when the police cannot be there to assist them. Our Government will reintroduce legislation to clarify and strengthen laws on self-defence, defence of property and citizen’s arrest.

This is all pretty vague stuff and who knows what the details of the legislation will look like. The promising news in here is that there was no mention of the drug strategy and specifically drug crimes in the Throne Speech. Could the Conservatives be getting smarter on the drug file? Perhaps they have left themselves some room to alter their course and put forward some more considered legislation based on a good analysis of the research and experience in other jurisdictions. Let’s hope so, but it will not surprise any of us if the new Harper Government brings back crime bills that on the surface aim to target organized criminals in the drug business but in reality will only contribute to our prisons incarcerating the lowest level drug dealers, people who use drugs, the mentally ill, and an inordinate number of Aboriginal people. Of course there are few if any services for these complex populations and no one expects an increase in funding for prison rehab programs. In fact these kinds of programs will most likely suffer funding cuts in the upcoming “downsizing” of government services.

It gets even more interesting when you look at the details of the Nanos poll:

Very few Canadians believe that building prisons is a priority for this budget.

Prisons are barely on the radar of Canadians (in fact prisons were not even mentioned as a priority for the budget in some regions) but are top of the agenda for the new government. Prisons cost big bucks and I just don’t get it. What other priorities will suffer as money is siphoned off to the prison agenda?

Here is an excerpt from Justin Piché’s excellent blog “Tracking the Politics of Crime and Punishment in Canada” that begs the question, why would they do this? Especially given the polling numbers above that overwhelmingly indicate Canadians are concerned about other issues such as health care, cutting taxes, job creation and the deficit, all of which will require significant expenditures if Harper wishes to show progress in these areas in the next few years. Piché writes:

In a context where the economic, political and social costs of increasing our reliance on incarceration are widely known, federal and provincial-territorial governments are in the process of establishing 10,600 new prison spaces with an infrastructure cost of $3.6 billion and rising (note: with the April 11th announcement of funding for the South West Detention Centre in Windsor, Ontario this tab now sits at just under $4 billion). These expenditures do not account for the costs of managing and operating these spaces, which each cost the provinces and territories an average of $59,057 and the federal government close to $118,000 every year according to 2008- 2009 figures compiled by Statistics Canada.

That this money is being spent when research has shown that increasing the use of imprisonment has a negligible impact on ‘crime’ unless pursued to a point where any short-term benefit derived is far outweighed by the long-term consequences is dubious, particularly when it has been shown that for every $1 spent on prevention, taxpayers save $7 that is spent when someone is incarcerated.

That our prisons have become dumping grounds for those suffering from addictions to drugs and mental illnesses, the poor, colonized Aboriginal peoples and other marginalized groups is a legacy no Canadian should be proud to call their own. That we allocate almost 100 times more money to our prisons than for victims at the federal level is doubly shameful.”

Of course we need to fight crime but let’s consider more evidence-based approaches and ensure that some of our more vulnerable citizens do not become even more damaged by unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system when access to mental health and addiction services is the real priority for them and their families. Now that the Conservatives have a majority perhaps they will be more interested in program effectiveness and getting a good return on investment instead of throwing massive amounts of tax dollars at prisons that won’t make our streets any safer.

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