Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Getting tough on criminals doesn't work

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IT'S great to see that Joy Smith, recently re-elected as an MP for Kildonan-St. Paul, is heading back to Ottawa. Smith was my Grade 8 homeroom teacher at Lavallee School in St. Vital, where she was wont to remind her students, whenever we began to misbehave, "I have a master's degree. I don't have to be doing this."

Thus it surprised me little to see her elected to Parliament. This time around, however, Smith, a Conservative, will enjoy being a member of the governing party. And, as she has said, the new government's first order of business will be dealing with crime.

Key to the new platform will be a combination of more cops and new mandatory-minimum sentences for gun crime. On the surface this seems a commendable approach. But the experience of other countries -- particularly the one south of us -- demonstrates the impotence of the "get tough" model.

It's well known that the United States has the world's highest rate of incarceration. America's rate of over 700 persons per 100,000 population behind bars gives us something to aspire to, for our rate is lagging at a mere 115, according to figures kept by the United Nations.

By the Conservatives' own admission, their aim is to increase Canada's incarceration rate. Since prisons are expensive to operate, this hardly rings of fiscal responsibility. At best, the optimism that longer, mandatory-minimum sentences will lower the crime rate is naive. At worst, it will only compound our problems.

Frankly, I'm puzzled by Stephen Harper's advocacy of having government provide long-term housing and food for those who offend society. Dwelling together in a dense community, prisoners can educate each other in crime techniques, so that upon their emergence from incarceration they can apply their newly learned skills, discipline, and social connections to better profit from fraud, robbery, or drug dealing. The problem with long sentences is that, in most cases, eventually the inmates do get out. With the current emphasis on punishment over genuine rehabilitation, parolees will hit the streets with years of criminal-minded conditioning. Moving from prison culture to the world of work is no easy transition.

Prior to the 1970s, Finland had a tough justice system modeled on neighbouring Russia's. (Russia has the world's second-highest rate of incarceration, 635 inmates per 100,000 population.) Strangely, however, crime actually decreased when penal policy was reworked by the country's notoriously liberal academics. Today the number of Finns in prison is around 60 per 100,000. And their prisons are more like schools: Unarmed guards, private houses for overnight family visits, and a conspicuous absence of gates, barbed wire, and iron bars.

If Canada's problem is illegal possession of handguns, we need to get them out of people's possession. We can't rely on snitches to dime out every handgun holder, and then have a SWAT team raid accordingly. Much more efficient -- and effective -- would be a national gun amnesty; drop your weapon at any police station, no questions asked. An even better incentive would be to offer $100 for every handgun brought in -- certainly cheaper than a police raid.

But to keep the guns from arriving in the first place, how about armed Customs officers to better secure our ports-of-entry, and a special branch of federal law enforcement (perhaps aligned with Customs but independent from the RCMP) to patrol the border between ports-of-entry -- an equivalent to the United States Border Patrol. Gun-smuggling is one crime that police can stop in progress.

Also important is recognizing that certain types of urban environments are conducive to safety, while others are not. Anomalies -- such as the Boxing Day shooting on Yonge Street -- do happen, but overall busy streets are safe streets. Commercial streets in which there are apartment dwellings above storefronts -- mixed-use neighbourhoods -- are not only busier, but benefit from natural surveillance, as those who live above the sidewalks tend to be aware of what is happening below them. For a greater sense of safety in urban areas, we should cultivate mixed-use neighbourhoods in our inner cities.

Stimulant drugs, particularly cocaine and methamphetamine, have the effect of destroying lives with astonishing rapidity. A national, accessible program of rehabilitation can reduce the harm while a multimedia (TV, Internet, radio, billboard, classroom) education campaign can increase the stigma while reducing the glamour associated with these drugs.

Given that the Conservatives are a party that ostensibly advocates smaller government and the elimination of waste, their ambitions to expand spending on police and prisons seem oddly incongruent. While I'm delighted to see Smith has moved on to a position more befitting a woman of her learning, I do hope she doesn't object to a rebuke from an old pupil.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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