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Jeffrey Simpson

Playing the politics of slogans and fear Add to ...

In a country of “peace, order and good government,” any government should worry about order, including threats to that order from crime. Crime rates are falling for many offences, according to Statistics Canada, but crime remains a legitimate concern for people and communities, a concern magnified by pervasive media coverage.

But there’s a difference between being serious about crime and playing political games with it. And what we have, sadly, is the politics of sloganeering about crime, rather than serious measures. About a dozen bills have been presented to Parliament by the Harper government as part of a “tough on crime” agenda, the latest being a truly laughable one announced by the Prime Minister in a photo op last week, making rarely used and dangerous citizens’ arrests slightly easier.

Almost the entire expert community – corrections experts, lawyers, judges, criminologists – opposes most of these measures. Many of them have trooped before parliamentary committees to say the measures either will do nothing to deter crime or will make things worse. To no avail, of course, because we’re not talking about rational policy-making – we’re talking about the politics of fear.

What these measures will do is swell the prison population, with considerable costs to taxpayers, without making them any safer. Both Ottawa and the provinces will shoulder billions of additional dollars for more people going to prison and staying there longer, although the Harper government refuses to give a proper accounting to Parliament.

The Parliament Budgetary Officer believes one measure – the Truth in Sentencing Act – will cost $5-billion; the government puts it at $2-billion. This cost for taxpayers will come from a government warning everyone to tighten belts to reduce the deficit.

Similarly, conditions within prisons – such as double-bunking – will worsen. This will hit especially hard the aboriginal community, whose members are disproportionately represented in corrections institutions.

No matter for the government. It wants to be able to portray those who oppose such measures as “soft on crime,” or people who like to “hug a thug.” The politics of slogans is what these measures are mostly about.

Consider just one measure now before Parliament: increasing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. There were 19 such mandatory minimums, often for gun-related crimes, before the latest measures. According to academic studies, stiffer mandatory minimums in the U.S. have done little, if anything, to lower crime rates. At best, the evidence is mixed for the impact on certain types of crimes; at worst, the evidence suggests no impact. What we do know, however, is that prison costs have risen for U.S. taxpayers, plea bargains occur less often and costly trials increase, with no discernible impact on crime rates.

A parade of witnesses – from the experts to a coalition of Christian churches, from law societies to former Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery (once a Conservative hero for his report into the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien era) – has opposed the government. But, as we said, to no avail.

A serious debate about crime would cover policing techniques and numbers, better intelligence and working in economically depressed areas with targeted social programs. Yes, there have been some judicial rulings where sentencing was lenient, to say the least. And yes, you can make an argument that the Supreme Court excessively expanded rights of the accused and put too many obstacles in the way of effective police work.

A serious debate would require sifting through the best evidence in Canada and abroad, figuring out which measures would really help, understanding that no attack on crime can be successful without fighting the causes of crime, and that just ramping up punishment without other measures is the least effective means for reducing crime rates.

But this kind of intelligent discussion doesn’t stand a chance in a media world convinced that simplistic crime stories sell, and in a governmental world more interested in playing political games with crime through sloganeering and phony measures.

 

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