Marketing mindset shapes Stephen Harper’s anti-crime agenda
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
August 26, 2012. Edward L. Greenspan, and Anthony N. Doob
The Conservative government has introduced 69 “crime” bills since 2006. The titles of their most recent bills, “Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act” and “Increasing Offenders’ Accountability for Victims Act,” illustrate their use of criminal justice legislation.
Nobody could seriously argue that these bills will do what their titles suggest. Titles of bills are not the law. The law is set out in the bill itself. The “Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act” consists of only one section containing 24 words telling judges that sentences should be more severe if there is “evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, considering their age and other personal circumstances, including their health and financial situation.” This restates the current law that sentences must be proportionate to the severity of the crime. How could the bill protect Canada’s seniors when it doesn’t even mention them? The title can’t be used to interpret the bill. So, as two of these seniors, we’d like to know: How does the bill help us?
The “Increasing Offenders’ Accountability for Victims Act” would double the “victim surcharge” (money paid by offenders to provincial governments) and would require all offenders to pay “victim surcharges” even if it would cause undue hardship to offenders or their dependants. Under the Harper government’s bill, Walmart shoplifters and 18 year olds caught smoking marijuana must pay victim surcharges. Is this “sending a signal that offenders must pay for the harm they cause victims,” as the government says?
These bills are more silly and stupid than they are offensive or destructive. The “protecting seniors” bill changes nothing; the “victim surcharge” bill imposes additional financial penalties on offenders who can’t pay.
Why, then, would the government introduce them? The answer may have been revealed in an essay by the Toronto Star’s senior writer in Ottawa, Susan Delacourt, published recently in the Literary Review of Canada. Her review of the book Political Marketing in Canada notes that “marketing is not advertising.” Instead, “Marketing is something larger and different: it is the shaping of the product to suit consumers’ demand.” Criminal justice policy is a product being shaped by the “need” to attract votes. Conservative criminal justice policy is developed not to serve public or societal needs but to help market the Conservatives to specific constituencies.
This understanding helps explain Conservative statements about crime. In 2010, after Statistics Canada reported that the number of police-recorded crimes had continued its 20-year decline, Stockwell Day, Stephen Harper’s former public safety minister, argued against logic that billions of dollars were needed to build more penitentiary cells because there were an alarming number of crimes that weren’t reported to the police. Vic Toews, as public safety minister, repeated this conclusion in 2011, suggesting that “it’s not that crime rates are falling. The reporting of crime is in fact falling.” The Conservatives apparently hadn’t figured out how lower crime rates could help them. This year, Toews has a brand new explanation for the continued decline in crime, a decline that began in 1992. The drop between 2010 and 2011, he says, shows that Conservative “tough on crime measures are starting to work.” Interestingly, he didn’t take credit for the steady drop in crime that began in 1992.
The Conservatives have also marketed themselves as fiscal conservatives. Yet they issued 11 press releases starting in August 2010 indicating that they would build 1,994 new prison cells at a construction cost of $506 million and an operating cost of more than $200 million each year. Their justification was that this is “the cost of a safe and secure society.” Prisons were marketed as the physical embodiment of being “tough on crime.” Then this year — when marketing themselves as fiscal conservatives was again seen to be important — they closed down some penitentiary cells and announced that they would save $1.48 billion by stopping penitentiary expansion. The justification was that their policies are working, an assertion made in the absence of any plausible evidence. Furthermore, their own data now suggest that the penitentiary population is increasing.
The minister of justice said he is not interested in evidence-based policy: “We’re not governing on the basis of the latest statistics,” he said. “We’re governing on the basis of what’s right to better protect victims and law-abiding Canadians.” What he might have said is that he’d prefer to pick and choose — or sometimes create — evidence to fit the marketing strategy of the day.
Canada annually spends about $4 billion on correctional services. Unfortunately, since our policies are based more on what works politically than on what works in reducing crime or improving accountability and fairness, we have no reason to believe that we are getting good value for our money.
Edward L. Greenspan, left, practises criminal law in Toronto. Anthony Doob is a professor of criminology (emeritus) at the University of Toronto.
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