by Paula Mallea
Canadian Centre for
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper is pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda despite the fact that crime rates are trending downward. Proposed tough legislation will in fact be more likely to increase the risk to public safety than to reduce it.According to Statistics Canada, crime rates have been trending down for over 20 years. This includes the violent crime rate. Yet the Harper government continues to insist that there is an epidemic of crime, and that Canadians should be very afraid of increasing violence — guns, gangs and drugs — the fear factor. This mantra is picked up by the media, and the public is duly terrified of crime and willing to support the government in its tough measures. About 30% of all current legislation before the House of Commons relates to crime. This is a very high proportion for any single file, especially in view of the urgent and complex issues facing Canadians today.
Tough measures do not produce public safety. Longer sentences, harsher prison conditions and the incarceration of more Canadians will return the system to a time when prisons were extremely violent, and when the end result was more rather than less crime. Recidivism is more likely to occur when offenders have been locked up for long periods with few programs of rehabilitation. The recent annual report if the Correctional Investigator confirms that these trends have already emerged in the prison system since the Harper government took power.
Statistics, expert testimony, and the experience of decades have not deterred the government from its chosen path. It plans to create more criminal offences, many more mandatory minimum sentences, the abolition of statutory release with supervision, and the closing of many proven programs such as the highly effective prison farms which have just been dismantled. Nor is the Harper government apparently deterred by the extraordinary financial costs of its proposed legislation. No proper estimates have been provided to Canadians by the government. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, however, has costed out a single piece of legislation which he estimates will cost taxpayers upwards of $5 billion over five years (including the construction of 13 new federal prisons). This will more than double the budget for Corrections in Canada.
The additional dozens of proposed laws will have similar extraordinary cumulative effects upon the budget. Why, then, is the government determined to stay the course? It appears to be acting solely upon belief and ideology — the discredited notion that more incarceration in nastier conditions will solve the crime problem. Additionally, there is an Old-Testament vindictiveness in the approach which even victims of violent crime do not always support.
On the other hand, crime legislation is sure to divert the public away from the more pressing and difficult issues of the day, and it is sure to garner votes as well. By scaring Canadians with skewed and misleading information, the Conservative government can legislate truly draconian crime laws which are likely to increase both the incidence of crime and the deficit.
About the Author:
Paula Mallea, B.A., M.A., Ll.B, practised criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston, and Manitoba. She acted mainly as defence counsel, with a part-time stint as prosecutor, and spent hundreds of hours in penitentiaries representing inmates. She is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.