Index

Our Pseudo-pursuit of Crime

W.K.

The Globe and Mail (9/04, "Unlocking the Crime Conundrum" by Ian Brown) diverts attention from issues that really threaten our nation's survival, by getting tough on crime, which is in far, far better control than our economy. We quote: "Should you ever decide to ask your fellow Canadians why they support getting tough on crime even though crime has been falling for 10 years, you will have the following conversation over and over again (all replies guaranteed verbatim).

"Nerdy interlocutor: Why do you want the government to get tough on crime when the crime rate's already down?

"Tough-on-crime citizen: But the violent crimes are going up.

"NI: Actually, they're not.

"TOCC: But the rapes, they're all unreported!

"NI: Unreported sexual assaults – at least according to the General Social Survey on Victimization, which is how Statistics Canada measures crimes that aren't reported to the police – haven't risen in years.

"TOCC: But the really violent criminals, they get out after two or three years.

"NI: That actually hardly ever happens. Canada has severe sentences, compared to much of the rest of the world. Has for a long time.

"TOCC: Okay, but thee judges let them out because they know there isn't any room in the jails.

"NI: Not the really violent guys, they don't [Pause]

"TOCC: Okay, maybe it's not so much in Canada. But people see these violent scenes, people getting beheaded with machetes in other countries. Maybe they think the country should stay the way it is.

"Lots of people labour under these assumptions, with good reason – not just the reasons you may think. Now a chance has come to sort things out. As of yesterday, crime is an election issue.

"Upholstering his arsenal of campaign points on Friday in Toronto, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised Canadians that, in return for the small favour of a majority government, he'll gather up the last 11 crime bills the Conservatives tried to introduce, bundle them and put them through Parliament as an omnibus bill. He would take on organized crime, end house arrest, eliminate pardons, and more, all in his majority's first 100 days.

"Before that happens, a brief look at some of the moves the Harper government has already made might be in order. It was a crime bill, after all – Bill S-10, one of roughly 60 pieces of crime legislation it has introduced in its time in office – that caused Mr. Harper's government to be found in contempt of Parliament. Another law-and-order bill, the Truth in Sentencing Act, passed last year, is lengthening sentences and filling jails so fast that it alone will double the cost of the federal and provincial penal system in five years to nearly $10 billion.

"While we're at it, we might want to ask ourselves why we seem to feel such a burning itch to be tougher on crime. The crime rate has been dropping for a decade, even though 44 percent of Canadians think crime rates have risen. The volume of crime reported to police is down 17 percent over the past 10 years. The crime-severity index, which measures the severity of reported crime, is 22 percent lower than it was in 1999. Violent crime is off 22 percent since 2000.

"But the conservatives want to put more people in jail, and 62 percent of Canadians believe longer sentences are the best way to reduce crime. In fact, as we'll see, lengthening sentences has no effect on crime rates. Yet many of us seem to want to be hard and unforgiving anyway. Why?"

Fear and Trembling

"To hear Mr. Harper tell it, when he insists the Conservatives have made Canada safe by putting 'real criminals behind bars,' you'd think we were all cowering in the corner. But in fact very few people are afraid they personally will be victims of crime.

"Statistics Canada's 2009 criminal victimization survey (of nearly 2,000 Canadians aged 15 and over) found that 93 percent of us feel 'somewhat' or 'very' safe from crime, a number that hasn't changed in five years.

"Ninety percent of us feel fine walking alone in the dark. Eighty-three percent aren't afraid to be at home alone at night. A quarter of the people surveyed actually reported being the victim of a crime in the previous 12 months (theft, most commonly), yet most of them still weren't afraid of criminals.

"But that's a dreary survey. To see what it means in the flesh – and blood – let me take you to booming Abbotsford, BC, an hour's drive west of Vancouver in the spread-eagled Fraser Valley.

"For two years running, in 2008 and 2009, this once-tiny farming town had the highest murder rate of any community over 100,000 people – 5.32 murders per 100,000 residents. A deeply religious town, (more than 80 churches) Abbotsford is also in the riding of former Reform Party MP Randy White, one of the original sheriffs on the law-and-order landscape.

"But Abbotsford straddles a long stretch of undefended border, and it's a Tunnel of Love for drug smuggling and gang activity. Pot, meth and E go south; coke, guns and freshly laundered cash come back. Some of Canada's most insouciant crime clans and gangs have operated here. Residents like to boast that back in the day, one in five houses in many parts of Abbotsford was a grow-op – a number the police don't deny. Eight of the nine murders that occurred in 2009 were gang-related. Somebody should write a TV series about the place. Yet if you imagine Abbotsford as a hideous bullet-pocked hole, you are very wrong. It's a pleasant, friendly, utterly middle-class, suburban city. The parking lots are stuffed with brand-new fully loaded $60,000 trucks. Herds of good-looking families roam the sidewalks. The city library is luxurious, bustling – only a brochure pinned to the message board advertising a 'support group for people grieving the loss of those who died by homicide' hints at the city's shadow.

"No one I meet professes to be alarmed by the city's criminals. In the food course of the local mall, an 89-year-old woman makes a few dubious remarks about seeing East Indians (heavily represented in this part of BC) in crime stories, but she says she is not concerned about her own safety. 'I just keep my head down and my nose clean.'

"Then I run into Bill and Pam, a couple who own and operate five long-haul semis. They earn upwards of half-a-million dollars a year for their trouble. Bill is in his 60s, and full of news: Three of his pals have just been sentenced to 60 years in the US for smuggling cannabis. (So it is not surprising that the couple asked me not to print their last name.)

"He's been offered the chance to do so many times, and has been tempted. But he likes his freedom too much. 'It is so easy to do, so easy to get away with. You can make $75,000 a trip…. He guesses the cops catch 10 percent of what crosses….

"One of the things you see a lot these days when professional criminologists talk about the Harper government is the Twitch – a combination eye-widening/brow-rub that expresses Total Professional Exasperation. At the moment the Twitch is being performed by Rosemary Gartner, a University of Toronto specialist who happens to be one of the world's experts on interpreting crime statistics, a notoriously swampy subject.

"Dr. Gartner explains how back in 1993, a parliamentary committee (dominated by Mulroney Conservatives, no less) counseled restraint in building jails and handing out sentences. 'And that was when crime was going up,' Dr. Gartner says. 'Here we are today, with crime going down, and the Harper people are increasing incarceration.' Eye-widen, brow-rub, head-shake, twitch.

"Mr. Harper and his parliamentary colleagues can throw as many people as they want into jail, and keep them there as long as they like. None of it will affect crime rates….

"Until recently, the rate at which Canada incarcerated prisoners had been restrained and steady since the 1890s – at between 80 and 110 adults per 100,000 people. The United States started out where we did, but since the 1980s has almost quadrupled its incarceration rate, to 760 prisoners per 100,000 people, the highest in the world (China runs a distant second)….

"So incarceration doesn't improve crime rates. Neither do the longer sentences.

"If it were true that jailing more criminals made society safer from crime, the US should have seen greater rates of decline in its crime than we have. But the fluctuation in the US homicide rates (the American one being consistently about four times ours) peaked in 1975 and both have declined ever since.

"So incarceration doesn't improve crime rates. Neither do the longer sentences Mr. Harper promises to push through, though there is some evidence they make inmates more likely to re-offend. Neither do mandatory-minimum sentences, also in the works.

"Hackler of the University of Victoria thinks 'the strongest answer to crime rates is equality of income.' Countries such as Scandinavia and Japan where the ratio between CEO pay and worker pay is smaller than here, have lower crime rates."

With that insight, Mr. Harper's preoccupation with higher prison rates is to empower speculative finance to handle the massive slashing of living standards that will ensue if he should be reelected with a sufficient majority to put through the economic program of his dreams.

"'Everybody wants to be safe,' University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob observes. 'And I think you cannot challenge that desire. And it's very comforting to think that Parliament can sit there with a dial and turn it down and automatically lower the crime rate.'

"But Parliament can't, and has long known it. 'Go back 50 years,' Dr. Doob says. 'There's report after report saying, "Let's prison with restraint." Again and again – at least 16 times between 1956 and 2003 – knowledgeable and brain-studded parliamentary committees have concluded that where sentences and jail time are concerned, 'preference should be given to the least restrictive alternative' (1982) because (1993) 'costly repressive measures…fail to deter crime.'"

From which we can safely conclude that political leaders of Mr. Harper's ilk are contemplating rolling back the participation of the producing classes, more drastically than has been attempted since the Great Depression.

W.K.

– from COMER, April 2011

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