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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

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Dave Bidini on 'getting tough on crime' Add to ...

Singer/songwriter/author Dave Bidini will appear at Torn from the Pages in Toronto on April 30 as part of The Globe and Mail Open House Festival. His latest book, Writing Gordon Lightfoot , will be published this fall.

You live in big, bad Toronto. Are you affected by crime?

Well, I've had about a kazillion bikes stolen, but mostly it was my fault. Another time, two large water jugs were pinched; again, I left them on the porch - my fault. And some terrible person also stole my hockey bag from the same porch, but considering the, um, vintage of the gear, their comeuppance occurred the moment they unzipped it.

Someone once pooed in our backyard. The neighbours saw him. He cleaned up after himself. I call that about even.

Has your view changed since you had a family?

My view has changed about safety, I suppose, but also about trust, and reading one's environment. Up until last year, we had a halfway house up the street. It was great, because we could tell the kids what it was and why people were there. What the purpose of the house was. That's life in the city: very little room for phantoms to hide. The suburbs, where I grew up, always seemed a bit more shadowy because no one really knew much about anyone else.

Is the justice system too hard on criminals, too soft, or just right?

Not being on the front line - in the courts, in the cop shops, around the jails - my opinion would be uneducated and would disparage people for whom law and order is their life's work. That said, when it comes to being caught with a joint on Bloor Street on the hottest day of the year after watching Camper Van Beethoven's reunion show at Lee's and being fed into a criminal justice system rejigged by the Harper government to meet minimum marijuana sentencing - that is simply too hard.

Are we, as a society, soft on criminals?

No, we are civil.

Should prison be about reform or retribution?

Reform. Anyone can come back. I've met countless people over the last few years through Street Soccer Canada who've spent varying degrees of time behind bars. Given a chance, or, in this case, given a sport, they have reclaimed their lives from whatever circumstances led them into their respective tunnels of pain, sadness and fear.

One recovered crystal meth addict from Homeless Team USA told me that, during his time in a New Orleans jail, he got his high-school diploma and college degree, and that "if I'd stayed in there, I woulda become a professor, too." For a glimpse into prison life and reform, people should read High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler by Newfoundland's Brian O'Dea. It's a great book.

What about the victims? Have you ever been a victim of violent crime?

No. Being victimized by violent crime would test anyone's preconceptions about punishment - or criminal tolerance or civility - but I'd like to think that, as a society, we might work to understand the source of crime and criminal activity and make our country as fair and strong as possible so that the conditions that produce crime can be limited.

A lot depends on who's running that society. Another set of hands on the steering wheel and you're no longer travelling straight.

What stands between you and a life of crime?

A Gibson 1977 J-180 prototype. Food. A career. A healthy warless country and an open city. My wife. Parents who care. Friends who can spot my B.S. a mile away. But under different circumstances, who knows?

At a refugee camp in Ghana, there was a jail near the front with bars open to the street. In it was a dirty, naked man who asked that we help him. When we asked him why he'd been incarcerated, he told us that, because he was hungry and had no money, he'd stolen a handful of strawberries. Well, put in a certain situation, anyone is capable of stealing strawberries.

What stands between you and running for public office on a law-and-order platform?

A conscience.

Does a "tough on crime" agenda speak to you?

No. This agenda preys on the fears and paranoia of shut-ins and suburbanites and reactionary voters who don't take the time to process or examine larger, more convoluted issues. It also gives certain politicians an excuse to look tough, but who says being tough ever got anyone anywhere?

Being strong and willful and brave and proud, sure, but tough? Communicating through toughness is like shouting across approaching subway cars. It's also a condition of what writer George Saunders calls "the brain-dead megaphone." You can shout about issues like crime and come across as authoritarian, but what you're really proving through this stubbornness - this toughness - is that you're too impatient to understand the larger issues.

Still, the shouter is afforded a certain cachet simply because he's the loudest. Not the smartest. Nor the bravest. Nor the most clear-minded. We are a society obsessed with volume, but politicians should turn down and listen.

Are you a latte-drinking, soft-on-criminals, mollycoddling liberal?

Yes. Except make mine a double espresso.

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