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Should Canada Be Getting Tough on Crime?

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Since 2006 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper first took office, his governing party has passed numerous bills designed to reinforce his "tough on crime" approach. Stressing that crime in Canada was on the rise and strong countermeasures were needed to keep offenders in prison longer, the bills passed into law have revised the Canadian Criminal Code, expanded the Federal prison system, and changed minimum sentencing laws. Among these bills are:

Bill C-2 (the "Tackling Violent Crime act") enacted in 2008 actually included five separate bills, some of which failed to pass in previous parliaments. Along with creating mandatory minimum sentencing for serious firearm offenses, the bill also made it easier to declare someone a dangerous offender, created new impaired driving offenses and raised the age of consent from 14 to 16.

Bill C-25 (the "Truth in Sentencing act") was also enacted in 2010. This bill eliminated the "two for one" provision for time spent awaiting trial meaning longer sentences since judges were instructed to be less lenient for convicted offenders who had spent months or years awaiting trial.

Bill C-4 ("Sebastien's Law") which passed first and second reading in 2010. Named for a 19-year old Quebec youth who had been stabbed to death in 2004 [LINK], this bill authorizes the use of prison sentencing for youth offenders who had previously received extrajudicial sanctions. The bill also allows the Crown to seek adult sentences for offenders as young as 14 as well as removing the press ban on publishing the names of young offenders.

Bill C-39 (the "Ending Early Release for Criminals and Increasing Offender Accountability Act") currently before the House of Commons. Not only does this bill reduce parole eligibility and extend statutory release dates for prison inmates, it also eliminates accelerated parole reviews and statutory release for various criminal offenses.

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While just a partial list of the different "get tough" bills passed or being considered in recent years, the Federal government has also ordered a radical restructuring of the Federal prison system. This includes expanding prison capacity and reducing rehabilitation programming for prison inmates.

Prisoner access to mental health services, chaplains, and vocational retraining programs has been drastically reduced. While cost-saving measures advocated by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews have faced controversy (including the recent decision to eliminate non-Christian chaplains for federal inmates), the federal "get tough" philosophy is unlikely to change.

But how much scientific justification is there for "getting tough" on crime? According to a recent article published in Canadian Psychology, there seems to be little real basis for it. The authors, Simon Fraser psychologists Alana Cook and Ronald Roesch, have openly criticized the current hardline approach favoured by the Federal government.

Their case against "get tough" policies has three main points:

1. Crime in Canada is actually decreasing. Even according to statistics collected by Public Safety Canada, crime has been going down for decades and 2009 had the lowest crime rate in the past 25 years. While critics argue that many crimes go unreported, the homicide rate (which is usually the best measure of actual criminal violence in society) has been stable for the past ten years.

The Crime Severity Index has gone down four percent since 2008 and more than 20 per cent since 1999. There have been some exceptions to this overall trend however with violent crime not going down as much as crime in general. While youth crime has also not matched the general downward trend, youth crime statistics have still been fairly steady since 2000. Overall, the federal government's repeated calls for stronger measures to "beat back" the epidemic of crime shows a radical disconnect with actual crime data.

2. "Get tough" policies simply do not work. Correctional psychologists and criminologists have looked at similar anti-crime campaigns in countries around the world, especially in the United States. As Professors Cook and Roesch show in their review article, research studies found that increased prison sentences do not reduce recidivism. If anything, longer prison sentences increase an offender's likelihood to reoffend. Low-risk offenders are especially vulnerable to long-term imprisonment and likely become more dangerous once they are eventually released.

"Tough on crime" policies also seem to have no actual value in discouraging offenders from committing crimes. Studies looking at the effect of mandatory jail sentences on DUI offenses in the United States showed no deterrent effect at all. Since "getting tough" usually means reduced rehabilitation programs, whether in prison or in the community, that also means that offenders are less likely to get the kind of help they might need to stay out of jail.

3. While the federal government has been reluctant to provide in-depth estimates of how much the various new bills will actually cost, some estimates suggest the cost will run into billions of dollars over the next few years. A 2010 report by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer stated that the "Truth in Sentencing" Act alone would add 3,754 new inmates to federal prisons and increase average time in prison per inmate by 159 days. Overall, that means $1.8 billion over a five-year period. Since that only focuses on prison costs and ignores the added costs for police, courts, legal costs, etc., the actual cost will probably be far higher. Most provinces already have a shortage of judges and crown attorneys able to process the expanded caseload so many criminal cases have already been dropped and this problem will only get worse.

Ironically, the American criminal justice system, long the pioneer when it comes to "get tough" policies has also become an object lesson on how expensive those policies can be. Along with the spiralling rise in prison inmates (giving the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world), the amount spent on police has more than doubled over the past 20 years and prison spending has risen even more. Taxes spent on incarceration alone in the United States account for more than $61 billion and is likely to rise even higher in the coming years.

And then there is the human cost involved. The rise in prisoners means increased double-bunking and segregation along with greater risk of mental health problems and physical injuries. Corrections Investigator Howard Sapers has been releasing reports to call attention to worsening prison conditions. Along with reduced access to rehabilitation (less than 25 percent of Canada's prison population are actually registered in rehabilitation programs), there is also the problem of aging inmates and the likely rise in geriatric diseases such as Alzheimer's disease in prisons that lack proper care facilities.

So, what does this mean for the future? As Professors Cook and Roesch point out, there is no real evidence of a crime "epidemic" and the current direction the federal government is taking will not reduce crime or protect the public.

If anything, the financial and human cost of the various "get tough" policies will do more harm than good as prisoners lose the rehabilitation programs that might really keep them out of jail. Though criminologists, social service workers, and prison health professionals have been warning about this trend for years, this "disconnect" between government policy, motivated more by politics than actual need, seems likely to continue. That these new policies may run a generation or more before the full costs become known will only to the problem.

And will "getting tough" will actually make Canadians safer? You be the judge.