Cracking down on crime: Is getting tough the way to safer streets?

Tiff Blair

Mandatory minimums, extended sentences for youth offenders, harsher sentences for drug crimes and the elimination of pardons for serious crimes, are but some of the legislative changes being proposed by the 9-part omnibus crime bill introduced by the Conservative government this week.

On Tuesday Sept. 20, the Honourable Rob Nicholson, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada introduced the Safe Streets and Communities Act that aims to “target crime and terrorism and provide support and protection to victims of crime.” While the Conservatives have tried to push through various crime bills since 2006 in a minority-government situation, they now have a majority government and opposition parties have limited opportunities to challenge these forthcoming laws.

The objective of this bill, to “make our streets, families and communities safer” implicitly suggests that existing laws and policies have failed to achieve such ends. Contrary to these claims, Statistics Canada data shows that crime rates in Canada have been steadily decreasing over the past 20 years. Why then is now the time to get tough on crime?

One could make the argument that regardless of the fact that crime rates are declining, the existence of any ongoing crime would warrant further government action. This, however, would only be the case as long as government policy was evidence-based and promised to lead to better outcomes. Unfortunately, given their spotty record of accomplishment, tough on crime policy agendas don’t inspire much confidence.

If fact, many countries are moving away from the crime clamp down and investigating an array of preventative strategies. In the United States, for example, a number of former proponents of getting tough on crime are now cautioning against these kinds of policies. Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney and Republican congressman who had advocated for harsher policies towards crime under the Bush administration, warned of the detrimental impacts of this approach.

“When you talk about mandatory minimums, it created a lot of unfairness in our sentencing. There [were] instances of someone being peripherally involved… getting hit with a mandatory minimum, getting 10 years or more in prison,” said Hutchison.

In response, the United States introduced a ‘safety valve,’ which gave judges discretionary power in sentencing; an approach Canada’s Justice Minister recently dismissed.

If getting tough on crime were the answer, one would expect expert criminologists and practioners working in the judicial system would be the strongest advocates – but they have been the policy’s fiercest critics. Many remain unconvinced this approach will indeed lower crime rates. Moreover, those conceding that these changes could result in a marginal reduction of crime simultaneously caution such policies since they often come with significant social and economic costs to society.

In its news release this week, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), representing nearly 37, 000 members across the country, raised several concerns about the effectiveness of this legislation and the long term repercussions it will have, specifically on certain historically marginalized groups.

“The impact on northern residents, Aboriginal people and people with mental illness will be especially profound,” said Dan MacRury, Chair of the CBA’s National Criminal Justice Section.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the John Howard Society of Canada also spoke out saying the bill “would lead to overcrowded prisons, jeopardize inmates with addictions or mental health problems, divert funding from treatment programs and dissuade sexual assault victims from pursuing charges against assailants who are often related to them.”

The implications of the Safe Streets and Communities Act are unsettling. Experts and practitioners reviewing evidence argue that getting tough on crime is not a silver bullet. This approach places undue emphasis on incarceration while offering little evidence of its positive impact. It fails to address the complexities of crime and the myriad of factors that influence criminal behaviour, including but not limited to poverty, mental health, long physical abuse, substance abuse, and access to services. A significant body of research points to the benefits of approaching crime from a holistic perspective, which is one that incorporates prevention and rehabilitation strategies. However, this legislation risks diverting resources away from such evidence-based approaches.

One also can’t ignore that this legislation presumably comes with a hefty price tag. While government maintains that the costs of this bill are “sustainable,” they have yet to provide the taxpayers with an honest and realistic idea of cost, which critics suggest it could reach several billions of dollars. Given the global financial crisis and the Government’s efforts to remain fiscally responsible, there is a clear need to (re)consider whether this policy will generate a good return on investment, or whether directing more money into areas like education, health care and social services would offer more bang for the buck.

Before moving forward with this bill, further investigation into the potentially adverse effects of proposed changes is critical. Failure to do so may lead the country down a risky path with few breadcrumbs available to find our way back.

Tiff Blair graduated from the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Global Development Studies and History from Queen’s University. She likes to dabble in a range of policy areas, but is particularly interested in urban policy, immigration and refugees issues, international relations, justice and food policy.

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4 responses to “Cracking down on crime: Is getting tough the way to safer streets?

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to The Honourable Rob Nicholson, Q.C., M.P., Minister of Justice, Attorney General of Canada « Naoshad's Web of Narcissism·

  2. A thoughtful piece. Prospects for evidence-based policy seem bleak; perhaps provincial and municipal governments can act as counterweights by tackling the social determinants of crime.

  3. Pingback: And what of Canada? « Just a thought…·

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