The federal government of Canada is set to institute the broadest, most regressive, costly, and ineffective criminal justice policies in this country's history. Experts, criminal justice professionals, researchers, and even conservative Texan policy makers have all raised the alarm about the economic and social costs of 'get tough' policies for Canada.
The politically-motivated overreach and nonsensical overreaction to crime rates that are the lowest they have been in over 30 years will have an impact on us all. Bill C-10, ironically entitled the Safe Streets and Communities Act, embraces the failed 'get tough' movement, will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, could reduce the use of effective crime prevention programs as it comes at a time when programs associated with effective crime prevention have been cut, and could increase crime rates and victims of crime from coast to coast.
The first problem is cost. By ignoring reality and decades of research, the policy U-turn represented by Bill C-10 will increase the strains on a justice system that is already at the breaking point. Building and staffing prisons is expensive and the new mandatory minimum sentencing regime, predicted to be a failure, will increase the number of people in federal prison -- at an average cost of 130, 000 per inmate, per year. While the economic costs are severe, comparative experience suggests increasing prison budgets could result in redirecting funding for crime prevention programs that are more likely to work to reduce crime. Punishment only approaches to crime creates a cycle of crime and criminality that is difficult to escape.
The second issue is how the social consequences of these policies will increase crime. As Harvard professor Bruce Western points out, 'get tough' policies have significant social costs. For juveniles in conflict with the law, increasing the punitiveness of Canada's once internationally-renowned restorative youth justice system will create more career criminals. It will undermine the very community supports and responses needed to invest in our youth and rebuild lives. For young adults, mandating incarceration for minor, non-violent offences could increase the number of those in prison and reinforce the very criminal behaviour that caused the harm in the first place. Despite the good work of many correctional professionals, Bill C-10 will increase enrolment in prisons -- sometimes known as universities of crime. This could turn adolescent offenders, who might otherwise abstain from a life of crime, into persistent criminals. We will all pay the price for this foolishness.
The third issue is the problem of recidivism. As anyone who works in corrections knows, most people who have been incarcerated will be released back into Canadian communities. Instead of encouraging these individuals to reject a life of crime, warehousing human beings in prisons often leads to more harm, not less crime. What is missing is the connection between poverty and crime and real-life challenges associated with successful reintegration into society. Instead, the focus on punishment and prisons empowers the criminal subcultures that often emerge in prisons. This undermines the personal growth needed to change. Canadian prisoners are more likely to have grown up in poverty and have suffered from mental illness. Those in prison have fewer job skills and social skills needed to succeed in Canada's increasingly competitive society. Increasing prison populations, reducing programs that work, and relying upon simplistic accounts of crime and criminality stigmatizes and labels individuals. This makes their reintegration into society far more difficult.
In August, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), which represents over 37,000 lawyers across the country, offered a series of clear statements and policy resolutions at their annual conference warning about C-10's costly measures that threaten to pack prisons. Now the CBA has identified 10 reasons why the passage of Bill C-10 would be a huge mistake and a setback for Canada.
If the research is clear, the professionals agree, and experts are organizing against these "dumb on crime" reforms, what could explain the Harper government's drive to limit debate and push the bill forward? In a 2009 article by John Geddes, suggests one answer. Geddes quotes Harper's former chief of staff, Ian Brodie as stating:
Every time we proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, sociologists, criminologists, defence lawyers, and Liberals attacked us for proposing measures that the evidence apparently showed did not work. That was a good thing for us politically, in that sociologists, criminologists, and defence lawyers were and are all held in lower repute than Conservative politicians by the voting public. Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types.
The Harper government is not only out of step with those awful and well-educated "university types," but from the provinces that rightly worry about picking up the costs for reproducing the failed experiments of the past. Ironically, Harper is also offside with Texas conservatives who have warned Canada that madness lies in a policy that expands prisons and reduces alternatives to imprisonment. Despite this, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has suggested, despite the clear and unequivocal critique from all quarters, that this is not the end, but only the beginning.
As Canadians must now realize, choices made through elections (and electoral systems) have consequences. The harm the Harper government is set to inflict on Canadian citizens, taxpayers, and communities is nothing less than criminal.