Skip to main content

"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," writes Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, in Wednesday's column.

Mr. Simpson took reader questions about crime, prison and politics at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. A transcript follows, or scroll to the bottom and read the discussion in its original format.

1:59 [Guy Nicholson]: Hi, I'm Guy Nicholson, an editor with The Globe and Mail's opinions section. We're here today with Jeffrey Simpson to discuss crime, prisons and politics, including his latest column on that subject.

Please start submitting your questions now - we may not get to them all, but will try to answer as many as possible. As we wait for readers to chime in, I'll start with a question for our columnist.

Jeffrey, you say in today's column that the government's "tough on crime" bills will increase Canada's prison population, at considerable cost, without making the country safer. If it's clear that crime is decreasing, why does "tough on crime" rhetoric appear to resonate with so many Canadians?

2:01 [Guest] With these drug laws, there is nothing to address the problem of the market. I can't see that any increase in penalties will do anything to remove the incentive for drug dealing. I note that many Southeast Asian countries, with very harsh penalties for drug crimes (death penalty) are experiencing the highest rates of increase in drug use, including Singapore.

2:01 [Charlie] Yes, I would like to know why the Conservatives are trying to put forth that Bill S-10 will make us safer, when, in fact, it will do the opposite. What I mean is, it will cost us billions?, to what end? Will drug use be deterred? No.

2:02 [Jeffrey Simpson] Guy - for at least three reasons. First, there are pockets of our country where crime is a serious, almost endemic problem. Go to the north end of Winnipeg, parts of east-end Montreal, parts of northwest Toronto, and there are many crimes. So let's not forget that there are pockets of serious crime.

Second, the media is very culpable in creating the impression that crime is more prevalent than it is. People who do television news, with their emphasis on the dramatic and the visual, are drawn irresistibly to crime stories. Even the CBc, which ought to know better, cannot help itself in reporting crime. And newspapers, or elements within them, feast on crime and are given huge spreads to write about this or that criminal event. Third, punishment seems so much more certain to people than prevention that it is politically easy to sell. Simple, simplistic answers to complex problems is apparent everywhere in politics, case in point being crime, so that slogans and fear-mongering replace rational discussion.

2:05 [Charlie] I think people are being misled to beleive that harsher penalties will lessen drug use. But look at Portugal. They decriminalized and their crime rate dropped.

2:07 [Jeffrey Simpson] Charlie: You'll have to ask the Conservatives. The justice department advised against it; the U.S. experience advises against it; a parade of experts in the field of criminology, courts and corrections advised against it. They are proceeding. Ask them, and let me know if you get back a slogan or an answer, the two being quite different in life, if not in politics.

2:09 [Guy Nicholson] This week, on our website, a Globe reader posted: "Whether the crime rate is going up or down is irrelevant to the concept of justice." A question for Jeffrey and/or readers: Is any merit to that argument?

2:10 [Charlie] Bill S-10, which is being purported to target organized crime, will only serve to incarcerate more users at a undisclosed cost. Following the USA's failed War on Drugs is not the way to go.

2:10 [Peter] While you're right crime rates are down, relative to what? Rates of crime are down somewhat, a worldwide drop staring in the 1990s due to demographics, likely, but are still way up from the crime rates of the 1960's--there is much more violent crime in Canada then 30-40-50 years ago. So, the "hug-a-thug" approach having failed, is it not time that people face societal responsibility when they breach society's rules and mores?

2:10 [Guest] Mr. Simpson. I feel we need to stop using the term "tough on crime" and start using another catchphrase. It has been used for too many decades and police and the courts are no more tougher now than 30 years ago.

2:11 [Jeffrey Simpson] Guy: It depends what you mean. Justice in criminal law is a matter of individual cases, instances. Whether the crime rate is going up or down, justice is done (or not) in individual cases.

2:11 [Andrew Livingstone] Does this mean that the C's have a generally low opinion of the electorate, that they cynically believe that this is the path to electoral success?

2:12 [Craig Anthony] Looks like we'll be having a lot of political prisoners in Canada.

2:12 [Charlie] Guy - Because our crime rates are dropping, incurring mandatory minimums will not increase our protection in society.

2:13 [David - Medicine Hat] Calgary's police chief recently spoke about courts for addicts. (I think they tried this in BC) Do you feel this would be an effective system to reduce crime?

2:15 [Jeffrey Simpson] Peter: Of course people should, to use your phrase, "face societal responsibility when they breach society's rules and mores." Nobody says people who commit crimes should not be held accountable for their actions. And I do agree that anecdotally there are instances when people are let out too early, and are sometimes given excessively lenient sentences. These anecdotes, however, are not sufficient to justify these laws, most of which involve seldom-used measures (Faint hope, citizens arrests) that do not make society safer. You ask about comparative crime rates. Well, I supposed one can go back to any point one likes and find that today's are higher. I only observe that there is a disconnect between the fact that they are falling and a certain political party's attempts to deny the fact (see Stockwell's Day's justification) or to launch a wave of new and largely useless laws.

2:15 [Bob Miller] One of my big concerns with MMS is that first time minor offenders will be mixed with hardened criminals and become immersed in a different world. Are prisons a breeding ground for crime? Are we sending youth to criminal vocational school?

2:15 [Craig Anthony] Jeffrey, these people will be in jail for political reasons. Should we be thinking about them as "Political Prisoners"?

2:17 [Chris] I am extremely perplexed by the overall situation. My inclination is definitely not to lock people up and throw away the key, especially for minor crimes. I am aware a) the crime rates have declined, and b) that policies like CA's 3-strikes laws have failed. Yet, I also repeatedly hear of sentences for violent crime in Canada that leave me confused, e.g., 10 months for vehicular manslaughter & gross negligence. I also know that my (ritzy Vancouver) neighbourhood has seen 1 fatal shooting and 1 fatal knifing in the past year. Media reports also suggest an increase in police brutality. Finally, I know from a family experience how long it takes somebody charged with a serious violent crime to come to trial. What's going on? It's hard to simply accept the status quo as acceptable. It's even harder to assign blame and even harder to see what the sensible policy reaction should be. Thoughts?

2:17 [Guy Nicholson] What I was getting at was that although we may understand at arm's length that crime is down or that incarcerating more people doesn't really prevent crime, the desire for justice is still a powerful motivator with individual voters. Reader Chris has just said it well.

2:17 [Charlie] Jeffrey - I agree with you that these "Tough on crime" laws attempting to be enacted (S-10, for example) are useless and will not deter crime. It will only serve to make Organized Crime more profitable, and incarcerate more users that are productive people in society....that is, until they have a criminal record.

2:17 [Jeffrey Simpson] Bob: You are right, what more can I say. When you minimize judicial discretion you can get precisely that result.

2:18 [Charlie] I believe that our courts, police and prisons are being overwhelmed with drug cases, so that true violent crime goes the wayside for "justice".

2:19 [Jack Ward] I don't understand the Canadian psyche of late, we seemed to be, at one time, extremely astute not to make the mistakes that, let's say, California made, and heed the advice of those that were there first ... when and why has the Canadian turned to dumbing down such issues ... it seems to be happening on all issues and wholesome debate has vapourized.

2:20 [Mac] There is a serious problem with the drug smuggling accross the border, mainly on lake St-Francis near Cornwall. While the major economic motor is cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs are a big part of the commerce. The actors are often the same individuals. There is an insiduous effect on the local economy such that the only major motor in this economically depressed region (southwestern Quebec, eastern ontario and northern NY state) is the trade of contraband tobacco and drugs. This leads to a culture of intimidation where contraband lords effectively control the local politics and economics. Anyone who opposes them is submitted to intimidation or retribution. There is virtually no police surveillance, with the exception of the Ontario side of the lake where there has been a significant investment in policing. As smuggling of tobacco is not a criminal offence, those who are caught are often back to their 'work' on the following day. This problem is accellerating. It is a billon dollar trade, and if not addressed, will transform the region into the Tijuana of the north. While law enforcement is only part of the solution, (along with strategic economic development both on and off reserve), a concerted, inter-ministerial, bi-national solution needs to be developed. In the meantime, citizens in adjoining communities are living in fear of these gangs. Action is needed and I believe that getting tough with smugglers is part of it.

2:21 [phouston] As someone who volunteers at a federal prison I can definitely attest that we need more treatment for addicts and mentally ill. Not punitive prison measures.

2:21 [Peter] Talking of judicial (in)discretion; the Globe's own Christie Blatchford has written eloquently on the recent manslaughter trial of the Mom who burned her infant daughter in the bath-tub. Christie wrote, and I agree, that the charge should have been murder, not manslaughter--while convicted of manslaughter, I bet this young girl is released in under 5 years, with day passes and all the rest far sooner, and during her time being "punished" will receive an education and at our expense. I am all for rehabilitation, but there also has to be some, just some, degree of rational punishment--we don't seem to have that anymore. The status quo, I think, is broken and something different needs to be tried, even if not perfect.

2:21 [Jeffrey Simpson] Chris: There is a systemic problem, which my colleague Gary Mason addressed powerfully and persuasively in a recent column, about the unpardonable slowness of the justice system. I have recently discussed this with, let's just say, one of the most powerful judges in Canada and with an extremely important lawyer friend of mine in B.C. They both acknowledge that the wheels of justice run far too slowly. Judges have to be much stricter in how they manage trials and what precedes them, and lawyers cannot engage in as many tricks as they do. Having said that, the Charter or Rights has introduced many new "protections" for the accused, and added new means of delaying proceedings. As a result, there is justifiable frustration about the costs and delays of the justice system.

2:22 [Paul] Mandatory minimum sentencing will clog up our courts and cost us much more money. The reason is that defendants have no incentive to make a plea bargain, and much more incentive to go the full court case in the hopes of winning. I belive MMS to be a huge mistake. What are your thoughts on MMS ?

2:22 [Guy Nicholson]: Readers, here's a link to that column by Gary Mason:

2:22 [Charlie] So, to offset the "too soft on murder" mandate of late, we give harsher penalties for a non-violent crime that harms nobody of growing 6 MJ plants?

2:23 [Jeffrey Simpson] Another point: we all live with the tyranny of the anecdote. We hear or read about this or that crime, or we are touched by one, and it sets off an emotional response. That does not mean that we understand the overall picture. And if we read constantly about crime in the papers, and turn on local t.v. (or even the national CBC) and see the latest shooting or other crime being reported, we naturally think there is more of it than there is.

2:23 [Hound38] Mac, this is one of the reasons why I applaud higher Cigarette taxes. Isn't better for these characters to be smuggling tobacco instead of drugs, weapons and people? I know that this is cynical but I suspect there is some truth to this.

2:24 [Charlie] Justice in the judicial system is slowed by the 70% of court cases relating to drugs.

2:24 [Jeffrey Simpson] Paul: I made the same point in my column. U.S. experience has shown that MMS induce more of those charged to go for trial hoping they can get off rather than settle for a negotiated sentence. The result is what you described -- in a system that, as I said in a previous answer, is already way too slow.

2:24 [Charlie] Hound38 - I smoke, and let me tell you the gov't has already taxed themselves out of my business.

2:24 [Paul] Jeffrey: Do you support ending the war on drugs in Canada?

2:25 [Jeffrey Simpson] Paul: What does "ending the war on drugs" mean?

2:25 [Charlie] I do for certain. We could spend that wasted money on the lost cause called the Drug War on rehabilitation, treatment, health care, etc.

2:25 [Paul] Jeffrey: ending the war on drugs means legalization and controled distribution similar to the Netherlands.

2:26 [JACK WARD] Hound38: back in the mid 90's when provincial and federal gov. raised taxes on cigs, to discourage youth, tobacco smuggling became an epidemic. It is these routes, used by mom and pop, smugglers that were eventually exploited by organized crime and drug smugglers.

2:26 [Charlie] Legalization would mean taxes generated and more control like ID's, that drug dealers don't check

2:28 [Charlie] Yes, so raising taxes too far, and putting through tougher penalties are NOT deterrents. They just fuel Organized Crime. I would like to take Organized Crime out at the knees. And at the same time cause my communities to be safer and the police able to respond to violent crimes and solve them.

2:29 [Guest] Mandatory Sentences of Imprisonment in Common Law Jurisdictions: Some Representative Models (2005) Report prepared for the Department of Justice Canada "... while the general public appears to favour the use of mandatory sentences for offenders convicted of the most serious offences and repeat offenders, there are important limits on public support for strict mandatory sentencing laws. When the public is provided with more information regarding the law and the circumstances surrounding the offence and the offender, the tendency is not to favour punitive sanctions such as mandatory minimum sentences."

2:29 [Guy Nicholson] Readers (or Jeffrey): What country's or countries' approach should Canada be trying to emulate? To avoid?

2:30 [JACK WARD] Education is a large part of it. It is no secret that teens are the target. As young as smugglers and dealer can get them. That's where it beings. That's how to deal with it....but once the damage is done? Then what? Rehab. And Jeffrey here is my question. Nobody is talking about bring down receitevism down through rehab. Jailing the same people again and again.

2:30 [Jeffrey Simpson] Guest: Good for you. I, too, have read that report that was posted on the Justice Department's website some time ago. It questions the foundations of the government's policies. I do not know this for sure, but I don't think it's still up there. If anyone Googles MMS, they will find the study there. It's worth reading.

2:31 [Hound38] Jeffrey, what would effect would legalizing drugs (ie what is described above) do with our relations with the US?

2:31 [Paul] Guy: Wrong questions to ask, imo. Canada should not emulate any country. Canadians should develop their own ideas. The problem we have today in our justice system is due to the fact that we have emulated the US system.

2:31 [Charlie] We should avoid the US style Failed war on drugs. They have the highest incarceration rate worldwide and I would never want to live there, as crime rates are the highest worldwide, also.

2:31 [Mac] The best antidote to criminal activities such as smugglins is prevention. However, when the patient has the disease, vaccines dont work. There needs to be action. When one is a victim of crime, there is a realisation as to how vulnerable we are, particularly in areas which are economically depressed and where crimes such as smuggling are rampant. The schools in these areas are full of kids who drive their expensive cars to school and cant stay awake as they are up at night smuggling.

2:32 [Chris] It strikes me after reading Gary Mason's column and your comments here on MMS and plea bargains that the crucial variable in encouraging plea deals and avoiding lengthy trials is the differential between the light sentence that comes from a plea and the heavy (potential) sentence from a trial. That may also suggest that the right policy is one that simultaneously removes MMS (vs the government's current position) but simultaneously increases the maximum possible sentences and limits parole options. The problem in many jurisdictions thus appears to be a focus on only one side of the sentencing equation.

2:32 [Jeffrey Simpson] Jack Ward: I do admit that rehabilitation is easier to talk about in theory than to execute in practice.

2:32 [Paul] Jeffrey: are you supportive of legalizing drugs and controlling their distribution in order to protect children and de-fund organized crime ??

2:34 [Blair] This is a government that seems bent to follow a 'war on crime' approach that has been used and failed in the USA; however, the goal is always re-election not good policy, unfortunately. It would be better if we had law and order candidates: willing to invest in police and prosecutors so that the likelihood of getting caught and processed quickly increases, spending money attacking the social issues so the potential pool of criminals is even slightly reduced, and providing the treatment required for those that are caught. But, we get simplistic fodder instead, and followed up with flag wrapping and name calling of opponents. Isn't this so-called 'war on crime' just symptomatic of what is wrong with our democracy?

2:34 [Jeffrey Simpson] Paul: I understand the temptation -- I won't say logic -- of legalizing drugs, although it depends on what kind we are talking about. Legalization would, in all liklihood, increase use, although it might reduce crime. I am unaware of a country that has done this, although supervised injection sites are being tried.

2:35 [Hound38] Mac, you're setting me up here. I was just going to ask about prevention - Jeffrey, are there any studies which show the best method of prevention? I just saw your comment about rehabilitation, but I would like to know what programs have been shown to prevent crime? As a follow up, would our current government be willing to investigate and try them (putting somebody through university is cheaper than keeping them in prison for one year).

2:35 [Mac] The stiff sentences should not go to the kids, but rather to those who are organizing the kids to do their dirty work.

2:35 [Richard] I believe that in seeking a majority the Harper government is trying to make our world seem more frightening. It can then be the saviour to make our problems go away (by building more jails to incarcerate more Canadians).

2:35 [Paul] Jeffrey: countless studies have found legalization does not increase use over the long term. Got any other reasons why we should not legalize and control ALL drugs?

2:35 [JACK WARD] Calgary Police chief Hanson, was on a radio program last week, saying that the prisons are already overcrowded with people that suffer from mental illness and drug addiction. He wants "Rehab Prisons" ...the same person (mentally ill or drug addicted) convicted that goes to prison, costs $88,000 a year to keep incarcerated -- without rehab. That same person would cost $14,000 in a "rehab prison" and the chance of re-offending drop dramatically....Jeffrey what have you heard about this "Prison Rehab" solution?

2:35 [Jeffrey Simpson] Blair: Broadly speaking, I share your views, in large part because you are not dismissing the seriousness of crime and its prevention, but rather talking about more long-terrm effective methods of getting at the problems. Governments, especially minority ones, almost always think short term.

2:36 [Michelle] What about the talk of "unreported crimes"? It feels like politics. Is there any validity to these claims?

2:36 [Richard] How can we reframe the debate, so that it is not about who is toughest or softest on crime, but what will make our streets safer?

2:37 [Charlie] Jeffrey - The 2002 Senate Special Report reccomended legalization of Cannabis. Portugal and the Netherlands have proven it works to lessen use as well as crime rates. Communities are safer.

2:38 [Mac] Many crimes are unreported because of fear of retribution. As sentences are often light and the 'small fish' are caught, the gang has a free hand to retaliate.

2:38 [Paul] Richard: our streets are already prety safe. If we want to eliminate crime, we will have to address deeper causes such as the economic disparities in our society

2:38 [Jeffrey Simpson] Michelle: You have raised an important question: "unreported crimes." By definition, we do not know about these and cannot accurately count them. Therefore, when Stockwell Day, filling in for a day as government spokesman, said measures were needed because although the formal crime rates were down, unreported crimes were up, he could not have known the truth or otherwise of his statement. There are clearly unreported crimes. There are women who do not want to admit of rape. There are others who, perhaps for family reasons, want to hush things up. There are other reasons. How widespread if the problem -- for serious crimes -- I do not think we know.

2:39 [Charlie] Mac - the stiff sentences keep being said they are going to Organized Crime, but because the higher ups in the oranization always have information wanted by the police, they are given a 'pass' as an 'informant' and the low level dealers and users are who really go to jail.

2:39 [Hound38] Mac, speaking from personal experience - the problem is the kids will not rat out on their suppliers/distribution organizers for fear of retaliation. I wouldn't be surprised that if some of the police support for increased sentences of small amounts of drugs is to induce pleas naming the higher ups and get more evidence against them.

2:41 [Jeffrey Simpson] Richard: In this world of slogans, I thought Tony Blair had a good one: tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime." He meant both toughening up the criminal justice system in ways that might the effective; and using government to address some of the economic and social conditions that contribute to crime. If we had a two-pronged effort coming from Ottawa, it would make a lot more sense that the single-track approach being followed.

2:41 [Paul] Jeffrey: since increased use has been proven not to result after legalization, I'd sincerely like to know why you do not support legalization and control of all substances? Do not adults have the right to control their own bodies, in your opinion? Have not enough children been exposed to drug use? Does organized crime not get their funds almost exclusively from illegal drugs?? thanks...

2:42 [Guy Nicholson] Readers, please submit any more questions you have now, before we start wrapping up.

2:44 [Ramos] Mr. Simpson: What does it say to the state of our federation, which, when going through university, I was made to understand is relatively imbalanced in favour of the provinces, when a federal government is pushing legislation through to impose stricter and longer sentences and expand the definition of crime among other things, without offsetting the additional costs these laws will impose on said provinces? Do these provinces have any avenue, on matters of law and order, to seek restitution from the federal government?

2:45 [Jeffrey Simpson] Ramos: Perfectly good question. It should be said that some provincial governments favor some of the Conservatives measures because they, too, do not want to be accused of being "soft on crime." Therefore, the NDP government in Manitoba has been somewhat supportive, despite the large share of their prison population that is aboriginal.

2:46 [Mac] My view is that there has to be a person who is ultimately responsible for public security in Canada. The Federal Government has a responsiblity for criminal law. Thus, while consultation is important, the Federal Govt must assumen its responsibility.

2:46 [Chris] Jeffrey, you brought up Tony Blair's approach. On the ground, aspects of that approach were positively frightening to anyone who believes in basic liberties, e.g. summarily executed Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. This is also why I think it's a cop out to point to the Charter as a problem. If the Charter makes the lives of police and judges more difficult: excellent, that is the point of such a document. Perhaps provinces should be building more courts and the feds appointing more judges so that we can speed up the delivery of justice without cutting corners on individual liberty???

2:47 [Jeffrey Simpson] The Americans have a phrase -- "unfunded mandate" -- when Washington passed a bill or a regulation, the costs of which have to be borne by the states, but does not pass along money to the states. This is what is happening in Canada: the federal govenrment passes laws that will increase provincial costs but has a) not given a detailed accounting to Parliament as to what the new, additional costs will be, b) has not indicated that monies it will turn over to the provinces to enable them to defray the new capital and operational costs.

2:48 [Bob Miller] Jeffrey, one topic that I didn't see here today was the cost aspect. That seems to be a hot issue in Ottawa, as well as in the provinces that may end up footing the bill. From a broader perspective than just crime bills, is it not reasonable to expect that any proposed legislation be accompanied by budget estimates?

2:50 [john] With the Liberals opposing S-10, what are the likely ramifications in an upcoming election campaign? Will being labelled "soft" on crime be an issue that resonates with the wider electorate?

2:50 [Jeffrey Simpson] Bob: It is reasonable to expect legislation to be accompanied by cost estimates. That is what the Congressional Budget Office does in Washington; that is what the Parliament Budget Office does in Ottawa, except that having established the office, the Conservatives have turned solidly against it becauswe the PBO keeps publishing reports the government does not like because they disagree with the statements from the government.

2:51 [Jeffrey Simpson] John: the Liberals (and NDP) are already being accused of being "soft on crime" because they wound up opposing (sometimes belatedly the Conservative measures. They will be accused of all manner of threatening civil order in the election campaign because they opposed these measures. Never underestimate on this issue the Conservatives' ability and willingness to engage in sloganeering, fear-mongering and base politics, as parties often do with crime.

2:51 [Paul] Jeffrey: please defend your statements earlier that it is not logical to legalize drugs...I'm beginning to think you have no defence for this? please explain the logic of the war on drugs??

2:52 [Dave] I have trouble with the argument that if govt policy makes something illegal or taxable, that policy creates an incentive to bypass the illegality/tax. Therefore we should change policy like make marijuana legal or reduce cigarette taxes.

2:52 [Mike] Mr. Simpson - what do you make of Norway's approach to incarceration? That is, it's efforts to treat prisoners with humanity and respect (written up in this Time article)

2:52 [Charlie] Drugs should be the mandate of the Dept of Health, not the Justice System. This IS the problem.

2:53 [Jeffrey Simpson] Mike: Pass. I don't know about Norway's approach, although I could imagine it would pay less attention to prisons and punishment than we do.

2:56 [Bob Miller] Any thoughts on what can be done to reintegrate ex-convicts into society? Do we have a recidivism problem, and are there positive steps that can be taken to reduce it?

2:56 [Guest] Dave - if the gov't taxes something in an unreasonably high manner, yes, they will tax themselves out of the market. Currently, a carton is $80. I can buy it at a reserve for $28, Duty Paid stamped on it, too.

2:57 [Guy Nicholson] Everyone, thank you for taking part in our discussion today - and thanks to Jeffrey Simpson for his time. Sorry we didn't get to every question. We'll be back next week at the same time.

<iframe src="" scrolling="no" height="650px" width="460px" frameBorder ="0" allowTransparency="true" ><a href="" >Jeffrey Simpson on prisons and politics</a></iframe>