Scary are the Tory measures to combat crime

Posted on September 24, 2011 in Child & Family Debates

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Published Saturday, Sep. 24, 2011.    Jeffrey Simpson

“We’re not governing on the basis of the latest statistics,” federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said this week. “We’re governing on the basis of what’s right to better protect victims and law-abiding Canadians.”

Think about that statement. Statistics are facts compiled by people who are expert in compiling them, such as those who work for Statistics Canada. And the facts are clear: Crime rates are going down.

Yet, in the face of this factual/statistical evidence, the Harper government acts as if crime is going up. Hence, the omnibus crime bill introduced this week that flies in the face of statistical facts, the objections of almost everyone who works in the criminal justice field, and international evidence, most notably from the United States.

Crime, to be sure, is scary. No responsible government can ignore it or its effects. But scary, too, are measures to combat crime that have failed elsewhere – such as mandatory minimum sentences, whose scope this government proposes to widen in Canadian law.

No one knows what these measures will cost as Canada enters into a period of fiscal restraint. While other budgets are going to be sliced, the ones that flow from this bill will rise. The government has offered some vague numbers to Parliament. These are far below the ones suggested by the Parliamentary Budget Office.

We know these bills will result in more demand for prison space. How much more remains to be seen. More prison space costs more money. Or more prisoners will have to share existing space that is, in some instances, already overcrowded. Rates of recidivism under these conditions can only rise.

So Canada is about to adopt policies whose failures are well understood in the U.S. and whose costs will be large but remain unknown. No wonder the government admits its policies are not based on “the latest statistics,” but on another order of analysis – namely, raw politics.

The Harper government has this weird contempt for solid evidence. It pops up from time to time when, in the face of expert evidence, the government just barrels ahead in another direction. Recall the government’s abolition of the long-form census, a move opposed by statisticians and groups that rely on the most accurate statistics possible. Recall the government’s insistence after the 2008 recession had begun that no recession was under way. Recall in the matter of criminal justice the parade of judicial spokesmen, lawyers, criminologists and prison experts urging, even imploring, the government to cease and desist.

No matter. The government made a political calculation that core supporters were desperately keen on new measures against crime and that the Conservative Party should embrace groups that represented victims of crime. The government also reckoned that, with the help of a crime-obsessed media, some voters beyond the Conservative core might believe that a crime epidemic was washing across Canada.

This led to a kind of morality play – good versus evil, “tough on crime” versus “soft on crime,” the forces of order against those of disorder – in which the Conservatives would align themselves with virtue, whereas their opponents would be garbed in the cloth of chaos.

As with all morality plays, little room would remain for subtlety, debate or facts. Sloganeering prevailed, as in “tough on crime,” despite the evidence that most of the proposed measures wouldn’t work or had proved to be counterproductive elsewhere.

Politically, the Conservatives made a good call, because the other parties nipped and nibbled at their policies without drawing a line in the sand. They apparently didn’t dare to make the fight against the Conservative measures a defining issue of politics but rather a parliamentary guerrilla war made possible in minority Parliaments but now rendered useless in a majority one.

Even scarier is Mr. Nicholson’s assurance that “this is not the end; this is just the beginning of our efforts.” He promises that “we’ll introduce other legislation as well.”

Some day, many years and many failures from now, it will fall to some other government to undo these measures.

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