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A person adds to the memorial for 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes at the Keele Street subway station in Toronto, on March 27.Sharif Hassan/The Canadian Press

Everyone suddenly wants to get tough on crime. The impulse is understandable. And a get-tough approach, starting with stricter bail conditions, may be able to reduce some crimes and deter some criminals. But on the issue that most Canadians are worried about – random stranger attacks – what we really need is less tough talk, and more hard thinking.

We need to get smart on crime.

Consider the case of Jordan O’Brien-Tobin. He is the accused in one of the random attacks that has Canadians on edge, the stabbing death earlier this year of a 16-year-old boy at Toronto’s Keele subway station.

Mr. O’Brien-Tobin is just 22 years old, but he has spent his short adult life going through a cycle of arrest, detention, conviction, incarceration, parole, release, reoffence, rearrest and on and on. According to reporting from the Toronto Star, which assembled the pieces of Mr. O’Brien-Tobin’s lengthy record, he spent the past half-decade racking up charges and breaching bail or probation conditions, with new charges and old breaches overlapping with jail or prison. If the criminal-justice system were a frequent-flyer program, he would have elite status.

Looking at his record, it’s not hard to believe that society might have benefitted from him spending more time behind bars. It’s an easy argument to make, and it might even be right.

But dig deeper, and another story starts to emerge. According to the Star’s reporting, Mr. O’Brien-Tobin was addicted to MDMA, cocaine and Xanax, and taking prescriptions for psychosis, depression, anxiety, night terrors and an addiction to opioids. He was also often homeless. He grew up in an abusive home, was diagnosed at an early age with developmental and behavioural issues, and lived in a group home from the age of 11 to 17.

A lot of people in the criminal-justice system are not criminal masterminds. They are instead severely broken people. Their freedom may need to be restricted for a time, for their good and ours. But unless their time behind bars includes activities and treatments aimed at helping them get better, their stay as guests of the Crown – however long or short – may not be a benefit to society.

The most striking thing about Mr. O’Brien-Tobin’s journey through the criminal-justice bureaucracy – involving a massive expense of taxpayers’ money for police officers, judges, lawyers, court support staff, prison and jail staff, bail hearings, parole officers and on and on – is how little time and effort went into providing the kinds of services that he and thousands of other offenders with mental-health and addiction issues need to have a shot at getting off the treadmill.

Not all crime in Canada is caused by these issues. For example, Canada is experiencing a wave of car thefts. In Toronto, nearly 10,000 cars were stolen in 2022 – up roughly 200 per cent since the mid-2010s – and thefts are rising again this year. This is organized crime, committed by gangs using high-tech techniques to steal cars and ship them overseas. It is precisely the sort of crime that more and better policing can tackle, and that longer and stronger sentences might deter. (It would also help if auto manufacturers made their keyless-entry systems harder to hack).

But the crime most worrying Canadians today is not organized crime. It’s disorganized crime, and the accused are often people with disorganized, chaotic minds. Some of these people are ticking time bombs. Keeping them in jail while awaiting trial, or putting them in prison with longer sentences, may sometimes make sense. But you can’t defuse a bomb by leaving it alone for a while in a quiet room, hoping that does the trick.

Accused people denied bail prior to trial are usually held in jails featuring miserable and often violent living conditions. These places also don’t usually have much in the way of mental-health services, addiction recovery programs or education and training opportunities. That defect extends to many provincial prisons, which hold anyone serving a sentence of less than two years.

Canada may need more police, a higher bail hurdle for repeat violent offenders, and longer sentences for those convicted of repeat violent crimes and gun crimes. But unless we invest a lot more money, resources and personnel in mental-health treatment and addiction recovery for those inmates who need it, along with education, job training and post-release job offers – none of which is about “soft on crime” or “hug a thug” – we’re not building a path forward. We’re building a revolving door.

With the exception of a small number of murderers denied parole, nearly every person behind bars in Canada is going to get out eventually. These are your future neighbours. I’d happily devote a lot more of my tax dollars to trying to help them become good neighbours, or at least less dangerous ones. It’s an investment that would pay dividends.