Edward Greenspan

BLACK TRIAL 20070713



“Our Conservative government believes that convicted criminals belong behind bars. No qualifications, no exceptions.”



Edward L. Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob, National Post | December 30, 2014 | Last Updated: Dec 30 12:25 PM ET


“All convicted criminals belong behind bars.”

We know of no person knowledgeable about criminal justice in any democratic society who has ever proposed imprisonment for all convicted offenders. But earlier this month, Canada’s Public Safety Minister, Steven Blaney, who oversees our penitentiaries, bluntly told Parliament that “Our Conservative government believes that convicted criminals belong behind bars.” No qualifications, no exceptions.

An opposition MP understandably replied, “Mr. Speaker, that is scary to hear.” Scary? It’s more than scary. It is hard to imagine such a statement being made by someone who supposedly has knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system.

Consider this example: If we take the Public Safety Minister at his word, his government believes that all those guilty of driving with blood alcohol levels even slightly above the legal limit, not speeding and not involving an accident, belong behind bars: Go directly to jail, no need to consider anything else. Currently, only 8% of all offenders — and fewer than 2% of all young women — are imprisoned for this offence. Do the Tories propose locking up the 92% who are dealt with through other means?

Correctional Service Canada has recently been criticized by almost everyone outside of the Conservative party for its decision not to alter its policies on the use of solitary confinement for the mentally ill in Canada’s penitentiaries. It refuses to attempt to address the problems — including suicides — that solitary confinement and overcrowding create. Imprisoning all convicted criminals will exacerbate the very problems in our penitentiaries for which Corrections has been criticized by various groups, including, as reported in this newspaper, the Canadian Medical Association.

Unfortunately, the Public Safety Minister was not speaking off the cuff when he made his remarks. They are a faithful reflection of what the federal Tories believe. Earlier this fall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took credit for reducing Canada’s crime rate, saying, “We said ‘Do the crime, do the time.’ We have said that through numerous pieces of legislation. We are enforcing that. And on our watch the crime rate is finally moving in the right direction; the crime rate is finally moving down in this country.”

We plotted Statistics Canada data on the overall crime and the homicide rates since the early 1960s. Total crime peaked in the early 1990s when Brian Mulroney was prime minister and declined thereafter. It would be more logical, though wrong, to give the credit for our falling crime rate to prime ministers Kim Campbell and Jean Chrétien. Homicide specifically peaked in 1977. Attributing the drop in Canada’s homicide rate thereafter to the 1977 abolition of capital punishment would fit the data better than Mr. Harper’s explanation, though it, too, would be wrong.

Mr. Harper became prime minister in 2006. For Mr. Harper to say that on his watch “crime is finally moving in the right direction” is either blatantly dishonest or breathtakingly ignorant. With the attention that his government has given to punishment, we suspect he is not ignorant. As former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly bluntly remarked “Taking credit for a decline in crime is like taking credit for an eclipse.”

Imprisonment is certainly appropriate for some offenders. But it is worth examining two arguments that are often made for imprisoning offenders who could be punished in the community. Some believe that crime will be deterred if punishment severity were increased. Scores of studies demonstrate this to be false. This is inconvenient for Mr. Harper since many of his 86 so-called “crime” bills (33 of which have become law) are based on the theory that harsh sentences deter. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, understood deterrence better than does Mr. Harper. Macdonald noted that “Certainty of punishment … is of more consequence in the prevention of crime than the severity of the sentence.” Mr. Harper, who could benefit from empirical evidence, chooses instead to ignore it.

Some believe that offenders learn from imprisonment that “crime does not pay.” This, too, is wrong. Published research — some of it Canadian and produced by the federal government — demonstrates that imprisonment, if anything, increases the likelihood of reoffending. For example, a recent study of 10,000 Florida inmates released from prison demonstrated that they were more likely subsequently to reoffend (47% reoffended in 3 years) than an almost perfectly equivalent group of offenders who were lucky enough to be sentenced to probation (37% reoffended).

Crime and punishment issues are far too complex and far too serious to allow the national debate to be dominated by dishonest platforms and slogans. False promises are often convincing. Whether those offering them are dishonest or ignorant matters little: Conservative crime policies will not make Canadians safer.


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