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Harper's New Bill Is Dumb on Crime

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Editor's note: Two sentences about the blogger's recollection of certain testimony before a parliamentary committee have been removed at the blogger's request.

Last week the Conservative government introduced Bill C-10, "The Safer Streets, Safer Communities Act," which, according to all the experts and the evidence, will not produce safer streets or safer communities. It may, in fact, do exactly the opposite.

Statscan reported this summer that "the police-reported crime rate, which measures the overall volume of crime, continued to decline in 2010 (down five per cent), reaching its lowest level since 1973."

The reckless ideological approach of this Conservative government risks reversing this Canadian success story.

Years ago, I sat on the Standing Committee on Justice when Anne McLellan was revising the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I remember Hon. Andy Scott asking which approach -- one where the offender comes out to a life of crime, or a therapeutic 'give them a chance to turn their life around' approach -- will lead to safer communities? At that time, Canada already had the lowest recidivism rate in the world. Experts from around the world were coming to see what Canada was doing right.

University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes has called the Conservatives' proposals one of the "most punishment-focused agendas in Canadian history." Previous governments put in place evidence-based crime-prevention policies that were working. Drug Treatment Courts and Mental Health Courts can effectively deal with these special populations in the community. Excellent programming within the federal corrections system had been paying off; defence counsel were asking judges for "two years plus a day" in order for their client to have access to the programming in the federal institutions. Addiction programming and anger management programming were working to diminish the likelihood of re-offending. For many, the ability to finish their education, even earn a degree, was the real road to becoming a law-abiding citizen.

On a visit to one of the federal institutions, a warden proudly told Hon. Andy Scott and I that when an inmate leaves with a B.A., he/she needs new friends, and will undoubtedly return to society a productive citizen. The 'corrections' system was then properly focused on 'correcting' the behaviour of the offender wherever possible. The goal was, once they had 'done their time,' they would never come back.

We need to ask the justice minister how he thinks that incarcerating a young person caught with six marijuana plants for six months in 'crime school' will do anything but ruin his chances of a productive life.

As my parliamentary colleague Geoff Regan said in a recent presentation at Dalhousie Law School, "Prisoners go in for minor crimes and come out of a broken, overloaded system ready to do dangerous, serious crimes. It's analogous to putting in a butter knife and churning out a machine gun."

This Bill is just 'dumb on crime.' The kids in trouble are real people with real problems. Some statistics have shown up to 70 per cent have a learning disability or problems such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Some kids have had a tough life. We know that child abuse is a serious pre-condition to addiction and violence. The inability to trust those charged with your care leads to an inability to trust authority figures period. A sense of belonging matters. I remember a young man in my riding who confided to me that the first time he'd ever felt that 'he belonged' was when he joined a gang. He told me that the first thing he'd ever been told he was good at was shoplifting.

Here in Ontario, we lived the consequences of the Mike Harris cuts to school arts, music and sports. Without outlets for these talents, young people struggling with academics get into trouble. In 2005, turning around the guns and gangs required the cooperation of all levels of government and most government departments. At the time, Mayor David Miller asked Justice McMurtry to chair a community safety committee, which brought together Federal Ministers John Godfrey and myself, Provincial Ministers Monte Kwinter and Michael Bryant, the Toronto District School Board, Toronto's Chief of Police Bill Blair, city councillors and youth cabinet members. All members of the committee were able to tap into the resources of their departments and their colleagues. We developed a plan for homework clubs and sports infrastructure, training programmes and anything we could think of that would be able to create a sense of pride and belonging. Former prime minister Martin met with us all. I remember the powerful effect of the interventions of the youth cabinet members. We ended up with safer communities -- this approach was 'smart on crime.'

Prisons seem to be the Conservative mental health and housing strategy -- unfortunately their only infrastructure and job creation strategy. Perhaps if they transferred the resources they've budgeted for expanded prisons to proper investments in housing, mental health and education, we would continue to make real progress in creating truly safe communities where citizens would be able to live in dignity and willing and able to make a positive contribution to their communities.

The shocking statistics with respect to the incarceration of Aboriginal peoples speak to the need for real reform, not the failed American approach represented in Bill C-10. Aboriginal people are three per cent of the Canadian population, yet make up 18 per cent of the prison population. For Aboriginal women, it's even worse -- approximately 30 per cent of incarcerated women in Canada are First Nations, Metis or Inuit.

We know a great deal about the social determinants of health and mental health. Bill Mussell from the Native Mental Health Association speaks eloquently on the importance of "secure personal and cultural identity" in achieving the self-esteem and resilience necessary to make healthy choices. We have much work to do to reverse the consequences of colonization and residential schools. Chandler's research on youth suicide in Aboriginal communities demonstrates huge success when land claims, education, health, police and fire services, and cultural facilities and ceremonies are in place. Without these basics, there is no social justice. Without social justice, crime flourishes.

Newt Gingrich has advised the Conservative government not to follow the bad example of the U.S. If incarceration of a huge percentage of the population and, in particular, the most marginalized populations, was good public policy, the Americans would have the safest streets and communities in the world. That is clearly not the case. In the U.S., there are 743 people incarcerated per 100,000 citizens, compared to Canada's 117 people incarcerated per 100,000 citizens. The policies of mandatory minimums are bankrupting the States and clearly don't work.

Canadians should be able to trust their government to put forward good laws based in clear evidence that they will effect the stated goals. C-10, "The Safer Streets and Communities Act", is a bad law that will cost billions of dollars without any evidence that our streets or communities will be safer. H.L. Mencken said that for every complex human problem there is neat simple solution; it's just that it's wrong. Complex problems require complex solutions. Creating safer streets and communities is a complex challenge, requiring serious approaches to crime prevention, especially to turn around the lives of those who do get in trouble with the law, and a much more courageous approach to identifying and keeping the truly dangerous psychopaths and sociopaths off our streets. C-10 is a 'solution' that is simply wrong.

One of my constituent just emailed me: "Walking home from the Wychwood Barns this morning, I saw a man wearing a T-shirt with the following text: 'Fighting crime by building more prisons is like fighting cancer by building more cemeteries.' Keep fighting the good fight."

Couldn't say it better!

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