Tough but not smart on crime

Posted on November 7, 2011 in Child & Family Policy Context

Source: — Authors: , – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Nov 06 2011.   R. Roy McMurtry and Anthony N. Doob

The Harper government’s omnibus crime bill suggests that judges should be encouraged to give harsher sentences “to deter the young person from committing offences.” The intention is to “reduce barriers to custody for violent and repeat young offenders” and to encourage the use of adult sentences for youths.

It’s understandable when a government attempts to gain popularity by suggesting it can legislate away crime. The government is simply reflecting the commonly held view that youth crime is controlled by the youth courts. We hear this every day when people suggest — as was repeatedly done in a recent series of articles in this newspaper — that harsher sentences would reduce reoffending by youths.

Other governments have been more skeptical. In 1990 our crime rate was higher than it is now and our adult incarceration rate was lower. Yet a Conservative government policy document noted that “Canada relies too much on incarceration, which may decrease rather than increase the chances of reforming individual offenders.” It went on to remind readers that most offenders eventually live in our midst.

There are three problems with the suggestion that offending by youths (or adults) can be reduced by imposing harsher sentences. First, decades of research has demonstrated that harsher sentences for youths (or adults) do not reduce reoffending. Nor would harsher sentences deter others. These are not ideological statements; they are based on evidence from numerous studies. The results are quite consistent: one cannot punish away crime.

Nevertheless, some youths and some adults do need to go into prison. Aside from anything else, both the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the Criminal Code require judges to hand down sentences that are proportional to the seriousness of the offence. And for some serious offenders this means prison.

But being sent to prison — especially for the first time — increases the likelihood of reoffending compared to being held accountable in the community. Of course, there are cases for which prison is the only alternative. But it makes sense that our laws instruct judges to consider non-prison punishments for offenders. It makes sense to require judges to hand down sentences for youths that reflect the severity of the offence and to require them to impose the punishment most likely to rehabilitate the youth.

The government’s desire to sentence more young offenders as adults also has implications for crime. The American experience demonstrates that treating young offenders as adults increases the likelihood that they will reoffend. Again, this conclusion is based on empirical research, something that our government, and some newspaper reporters, prefer to ignore.

The second reason we should be wary of suggestions that the courts become tougher is that imprisonment is very expensive. The government says that cost doesn’t matter because the real cost of crime is borne by victims. This ignores the fact that there will be more, not fewer, victims if we increase imprisonment. And every million dollars spent on increased imprisonment means a million dollars less that could be used effectively to reduce crime or serve the real needs of victims.

A million dollars spent on prisons for youths is a million dollars not spent on programs to increase high school completion, public health programs for “at risk” families, programs to help youths make the transition from school to work. Programs in each of these areas have been shown to provide various benefits including crime reduction.

Finally, we need to think about our country’s values. We know that most youths who commit crimes stop when they grow older without being brought to court. Canadian federal governments — both Conservative and Liberal — have, until recently, been wary of quick-fix solutions to crime and have felt that it is government’s responsibility to be responsible about the use of imprisonment.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act reflects the reality of what we know about youth crime and the ability of the youth courts to reduce offending. Its provisions reflect skepticism concerning the value of unnecessarily bringing youths into youth court and placing them in custody if they can be held accountable outside of court or in the community.

Ultimately, it comes down to values. Do we want to define ourselves, as Canadians, as people whose main response to offending is vengeance, or do we want to think of ourselves as people who have a more measured, rational response that ultimately will make us safer? For us, the answer is easy.

R. Roy McMurtry is a former attorney general of Ontario and chief justice of Ontario.

Anthony N. Doob is a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

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2 Responses to “Tough but not smart on crime”

  1. Jessica Nagora says:

    After reading this article the only thing I could think of was my friend Emily who was killed by a drunk driver. The twenty-eight year old women was charged with driving causing death, driving with a blood-alcohol content exceeding 80 milligrams causing death, dangerous driving causing death and criminal negligence causing death but only getting four years of time behind bars. Her prison time was reduced after only spending about half a year in jail for the time served in custody with the probation of ten years before operating a motor vehicle. This woman who killed my friend is a single mother of a six year old; who have had a history of alcohol abuse and has been arrested before in her younger years. This tragedy affected the whole community by living in a small town but nothing will bring back Emily. Her friends and family have to suffer while the drunk driver only receive 4 years in jail and can continue to live a life; but Emily does not have that choice. I believe there should be harsher sentences for taking someone’s life.

    I agree with the Harper government that judges should give harsher sentences to youth as well as adults. However, I do not agree with the problems that the article is applying if the judges become stricter. The article states “research has demonstrated that harsher sentences for youths (or adults) do not reduce re-offending. Nor would harsher sentences deter others.” Contrary to this the point The Telegraph Newspaper states that “Nearly half of all criminals released from jail reoffended within a year of being let out.” This shows that there needs to be harsher sentences so not as many criminals reoffended which is causing danger for everyone. Yes, it is expensive for the courts to become tougher but it keeps criminals off the street. People who have committed a crime deserve to live with their actions because they have put the well being of innocent citizens in danger. I do believe that there should be programs implicated for the criminals that are in jail as well when they are released such as counselling services which could help them through this tough time and may prevent them from reoffending. Youths and adults are both receiving light punishment for many serious crimes such as killing someone, rape etc and change needs to occur.

  2. Hailie Gagliardi says:

    I do not understand why the emphasis seems to be on incarcerating youth and not rehabiliting them? I currently work in a group home for behavioural teenage boys and have had many problems regarding the justice system, in the ways that they deal with crimes committed by our youth.

    First of all,by incarcerating some of our kids, they learn wonderful new skills in correctional facilities from their fellow peers. They then use these skills to reoffend in worse ways. Second of all, the kids from what I’ve seen like to brag about being to prison to their friends and ironically enough, it seems to ‘increase’ their social status. Some of our boys have even stated they like prison, because its a break from reality, they thrive in the complete order that prisons have. Another point I wish to make is, what happens when/if overcrowding begins to occur? This could create a hostile environment in prisons and lead to lack of quality in how the youth are handled, and potentially be dangerous especially if youth are placed in facilities with adults as well.

    If we had more programs, such as counselling services, rehabilitation at a younger age for at-risk youth, perhaps we could prevent them committing felons. Even showing middle school children the reality of prison life could help. More and more at risk youth could possibly finish high school and have better life skills to function socially. It doesn’t make sense to me that a harsher sentence will encourage youth not to reoffend, especially for those who show repetetive behaviour in commiting felonies.


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