Simplistic ‘tough on crime’ tack doesn’t work
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IF there’s anything political backroom operatives know, it’s that sounding tough on crime sells. Next to the false promise of “saving health care,” politicians understand that if they are tough on crime, they can be guaranteed a good return at the ballot box, largely because those who are most concerned about crime tend to vote. But it’s a false narrative — one that doesn’t have much evidence to back it up.
That hasn’t stopped federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre from raising the roof about Canada’s “massive crime wave.” The Liberals have responded with a bail reform package to regain public confidence in the system following high profile crimes allegedly committed by persons out on bail. This includes the death of an Ontario Provincial Police officer in December.
Look, it’s not a bad thing to have a look at Canada’s current bail system. The last time it was updated was in 2019, when it was amended to give consideration when deciding on bail “to the circumstances of aboriginal accused” and “accused who belong to a vulnerable population that is overrepresented in the criminal justice system.”
This time, the reforms include a “reverse onus” — something Canadian premiers and police officials have asked for. The “reverse onus” means the accused would have to show why they should be released, instead of the prosecution having to prove that they should remain behind bars. Will this be enough to calm down the “nattering nabobs of negativity”? Of course not. And it certainly won’t shut down Poilievre either, who’s hellbent on ensuring Canadians are left with a sense that everything is broken in this country.
Let’s look at the issue of the “massive crime wave” Poilievre says Canada is experiencing. Many Canadians seem to feel the same, with a poll showing that two-thirds of Canadians feel that violent crime is worse than it was before COVID. One-fifth of the respondents to the Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies poll said they feared for their safety. Canada has also recently had an unprecedented spate of killings of police officers — 10 in less than a year. The most recent death came on May 11, after three OPP officers were ambushed 50 kilometres east of Ottawa. Forty-two-year-old Sergeant Eric Mueller died in hospital.
What’s going on?
There are many factors, but getting tough on crime and bail reform is far too simplistic a response. First, Canada is already tough on crime. Don’t believe me? Look at the data from the World Prison Brief.
As Cheryl Webster from the University of Ottawa points out in a recent Policy Options piece: “Canada’s pre-trial/remand imprisonment rate is higher than that of almost every comparable western European nation as well as our most obvious comparators: England and Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland. Only when Canada is compared to New Zealand and Australia as well as the United States — as the quintessential mass imprisonment nation in the world — do we look more moderate.”
Second, the idea of a reverse onus won’t make much difference. Cassandra Richards, a member of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa wrote recently that “despite the numerous reverse onus provisions that already exist in the Criminal Code, no link between their use and public safety has been made by careful research. Crime rates throughout Canada have continued to decline, even as the rate of people facing pre-trial detention has risen.”
What may help is if Canadians stopped wanting to get tough on crime and started instead to think about getting tough on mental health. Many of the concerns about crime described in the Leger poll talked about the random acts of violence or unprovoked attacks that have become headlines across the country. A 16-year-old Toronto man stabbed to death allegedly by a man with a lengthy criminal background and mental health issues. A Burnaby RCMP officer who worked in the detachment’s mental health and homelessness outreach team is stabbed to death responding to a call. A young father is stabbed outside a Vancouver Starbucks after an altercation over vaping. These are the consequences of not taking mental health seriously.
Canada’s deinstitutionalization of those who are mentally ill began in the 1960s and continues to this day, but as Quebec researcher Jessica Spagnolo points out, it has failed miserably. The idea was that those who were chronically mentally ill would be better cared for outside of institutions and within the community. But the problem has been a failure to ensure that there are places within the community for those who suffer from severe mental health issues. Add to that the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health and a lack of doctors, a lack of hospital beds and a lack of attention by policymakers and you have a situation that’s ripe for disaster.
Now, add to that three years of a pandemic, social isolation and an opioid crisis, and it’s no wonder crime statistics feel out of control and people are feeling unsafe.
Politicians fanning our fears to score political points aren’t helping. Addressing mental health and the opioid crisis with both long- and short-term solutions like safe and affordable housing and harm reduction principles is a more humane strategy.
I get the optics behind bail reform and being tough on crime. But it’s misdirected and a knee jerk response that’s unlikely to heal the cataclysmic shift this country is now left to deal with in the wake of the fallout from COVID-19.
Shannon Sampert is a communications consultant, freelance editor for Policy Options and former politics and perspectives editor at the Free Press. She teaches part time at the University of Manitoba.