A slightly shorter version of this column was published in today’s edition of the Saint City News.
At an all-candidates’ forum during the 2007 municipal election campaign, when I was running for City Council here in St. Albert, I was gobsmacked by a question from the audience.
I’d stayed up late the night before preparing for likely questions about municipal policies and issues on which councilors have the power to act. So when the question flew in from left field, I thought for a moment I might lose the power of speech.
“Where do you stand,” asked the moderator, questioner’s crumpled paper in hand, “on the use of crystal meth in our community?” (My first thought: “Who the heck asked that?”)
I did my best. I mumbled something about being opposed to a punitive approach to a social, psychological and medical problem. Not because I support drug use, obviously, but because punishment is ineffective, often doing more harm than good.
I didn’t feel that was what my questioner – and perhaps others in the audience – wanted to hear. Indeed, polling suggests harsh penalties for crime are very popular. I think the question was a set-up by someone who planned to score some easy points by calling for tougher penalties, more arrests, longer prison terms, mandatory sentences and the like. (Lesson learned. Next time, salt the mix with your own questions!)
So be it. What I said is what I thought, and what I still think.
Indeed, I believe wars on crime are, like war in general, apt to have unexpected and undesirable results. Wars can’t always be avoided, but they seldom work out the way the people who promote them predict. The troops are rarely home by Christmas. Sometimes the enemy wins, as seems to be happening with our never-ending “war on drugs.”
Moreover, while I would never deny crime is a problem, I am dubious about the widely held belief violent crime is getting worse. In mid-July, Statistics Canada reported that the national crime rate in Canada declined a significant 7 per cent in 2007. Crime was down in most provinces, including Alberta. Most serious violent offences – including homicides, attempted murders, sexual assaults and robberies – were down too. Over the past 15 years, the country’s crime rate has dropped more than 25 per cent!
So does it make sense that our federal government’s response to this heartening trend is to “get tough on crime” with discredited policies like mandatory sentences?
Ask yourself: is the United States safer today with more than 1.5 million adult Americans in prison than it was in 1970 when fewer than 200,000 were incarcerated? (Throw in prisoners in local jails, and more than 2.3 million people – one in every 100 American adults – are behind bars in the U.S.! The United States, with about 5 per cent of the world’s population, has about 25 per cent of its prisoners.)* Do you feel safer there than here at home in Canada?
Of course, it’s easy to advocate getting tough on crime. It’s the lazy man’s answer to poverty! It’s less complicated to throw people in jail than it is to address the social causes of crime, even if it costs more in the long run. Plus, it makes for good politics, keeping the public’s mind off more substantive issues. It also makes for profitable journalism, since covering crime is cheap. Wanting revenge is human nature – so what if we end up using jail as a crime college that turns troubled young people into hardened criminals?
Looking back to that campaign question, I think a more effective response might have been to appeal to taxpayers’ basic self interest: their pocketbooks. Because even if our federal government doesn’t get it, it’s starting to sink in south of the border that the prison-industrial complex advocated by the “tough-on-crime” crowd is not only not working, it’s too expensive to maintain.
The U.S. spends $200 billion a year on prisons – almost as much as Canada’s entire 2007-2008 federal budget of $234 billion. Of that astonishing sum, $49 billion alone has been estimated to be the cost of U.S. mandatory sentencing laws.
Put crudely, the more you spend on prisons and prisoners, the less there is for schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, libraries, recreation centres and the other infrastructure and services governments provide best – not to mention tax cuts.
That is why more than a dozen U.S. states – including notoriously “tough on crime” Texas – are revaluating their unsound sentencing policies to keep fewer people behind bars. California, for example, intends to release 22,000 non-violent convicts early to save more than $1 billion.
Should Canada be adopting a failed policy from which the U.S. is desperately trying to retreat?
If social justice, decency, practicality and safer communities won’t wash with voters, maybe the good old bottom line will!
* U.S. “justice” is not just brutal, expensive and ineffective, it is racist. If you are an African American male between the ages of 20 and 34, your likelihood of being behind bars in the U.S. is one in nine!