02/29/2012 01:42 EST | Updated 04/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Tackle, Don't Shackle, the Crime Problem


The Conservative government's crime agenda has been thrown into the spotlight recently with the tabling of Bill C-10 and is likely to be voted on in the Senate this week. The legislation is misguided, ill- advised, will cost billions, and goes against what other jurisdictions have learned. It focuses on punishment not crime prevention; on prisons and not community betterment. Crime policy should not be guided by draconian measures but by policies that are smart on crime.

To start we need appropriate penalties for offenders. This means maintaining the judge's discretion to determine, based on the facts of the case, what punishment is appropriate for the crime. If the judge believes the offender is a danger to society and shouldn't be let out, then lock him up. But it could also mean giving the offender a second chance at life rather than being left in prison to rot, only to come out a worse criminal. All at a great expense to the taxpayer without adding to public safety.

We also must recognize that C-10 unfairly targets the most vulnerable among us, specifically those in poverty. While all those who live in poverty are by no means associated with crime, the numbers simply do not lie. Over 70 per cent of those who enter prisons have dropped out of high school. Seventy per cent of offenders have unstable job histories.

Four of every five arrive in prison with serious substance abuse problems, and if you don't factor in substance abuse, approximately a quarter of all individuals admitted to federal prisons show signs of mental health illness. While aboriginal peoples compose 2.7 per cent of the adult population, approximately 18.5 per cent of adult offenders now serving federal sentences are of aboriginal ancestry. The Correctional Investigator noted that 35 per cent of aboriginal offenders reported poverty in their background.

In the Greater Toronto Area, neighbourhoods with the highest levels of incarceration are those with lower incomes, higher unemployment, more single-family households, and lower education. As one provincial judge wrote: "Poverty is the first fuel that drives crime. It becomes mixed in with the destabilization of families, widespread substance abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence."

So instead of spending billions on mega prisons that perpetuate the problem, we would be better off investing that money into comprehensive childhood development initiatives, affordable housing, youth mentorship programs, at-risk youth initiatives, and rehabilitative programs because they have been proven to reduce poverty and crime. Steps like these will help reduce the growing income gap in Canada, while at the same time giving people the opportunity to have a better life.

The Pathways to Education program that first started in the Regent Park area of Toronto is an incredible example of what can happen when money is invested into programs instead of prisons. Since the initiative was launched high school graduation rates have doubled. And the number of students who go on to post-secondary education has increased by a remarkable 300 per cent.

One of Toronto's toughest areas has been transformed, with young people now choosing education over incarceration and classes over crime. The economic benefits are real as well. For every dollar invested the program is generating $24 in social returns.

With a commitment to programs like these, and an understanding that rehabilitation is more important then incarceration, we can create a Canada that is full of people who will be given every opportunity to succeed, will be less likely to commit crimes, and more likely to become active contributors to our economy and society.

The goal of the government should be to help, not shackle, its citizens. Moving away from this crime agenda is the first step in accomplishing a better Canada.