Crime prevention needed, not tougher sentences

  • March 12, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Federal tough-on-crime legislation isn’t going to deter crime, won’t make communities safer and will divert millions of dollars away from crime prevention to build more jails and conduct more trials, said the Church Council on Justice and Corrections.

“It’s clear that you want to stop the gangs, that you want to make it safer for the community. Are these measures really going to make much difference?” asked Richard Haughian, who represents the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on the board of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections .

“Our emphasis would be on seeing harder legislation like this in a broader context. That would include more prevention, more looking at the social and economic causes of things like gangs,” Haughian said. “Does this legislation address that? No, it doesn’t.”

The government has introduced legislation that would add mandatory minimum sentences for gang-related drug dealing, selling drugs near schools and running large marijuana grow operations. Another bill would amend the Criminal Code to make gang-related killings automatically treated as first-degree murder and mandate a four-year minimum sentence for drive-by shootings.

The Opposition Liberals and NDP have agreed to the legislation in principle. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared the vote on the bills a matter of confidence. Opposition parties are expected to expedite passage of both bills, even while they criticize the government as “soft on prevention.”

The church justice experts at CCJC point out that mandatory minimum sentences will be very costly for both provincial and federal governments. Mandatory minimums eliminate plea bargains. Without plea bargains, criminals have no incentive to plead guilty in the hope of a lighter sentence. The result is more and longer trials and the accused taking up space in provincial jails.

Eventually both the provinces and the federal government will have to build more jails, said Haughian.

“The millions and millions of dollars that go to building more jails, where is that money coming from?” asked Haughian. “What if that money was spent on community development? On meeting the needs of the poor? So many of gangster-related activities come from people who have grown up in substandard housing with a lack of education.”

An absence of programming in jails means that when criminals get out they have few alternatives to a life of crime, said Haughian.

“We should be learning from elsewhere,” he said. “We know in the 1970s in the United States they started this type of program of building more prisons, of increasing sentences, and we know the terrible results,” where crime has not gone down.

Playing on popular fears of crime, fuelled by spectacular crime stories in newspapers and on television, is just politics, according to Haughian.

“There certainly is a concern and even fear in the community, but the statistics actually tell us that the situation is improving. There is greater security,” he said.

Statistics Canada reports that the crime rate was at its lowest in 30 years in 2007. Youth crime is unchanged from 2006, and the homicide rate by minors dropped in 2007.

The government points to gang crime statistics to back up the minimum sentences. One in every five people murdered in Canada is now the victim of gang violence. There were 117 gang-related murders in 2007 across Canada, compared with just 28 in 1997.

Most criminologists say research shows that crime statistics are not influenced by penalties. Crime rates in the United States and Canada have been moving down since the 1990s for demographic, economic and sociological reasons, according to academics who study crime.

“We know that we’re going to hear these critics, and we know that we’re going to hear the opposition parrot some of these critics because they all believe in soft-on-crime policies,” Harper said in a Feb. 26 speech in Vancouver.

But it’s not just academics and opposition politicians, said Haughian.

“The people we deal with, many of the people on the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, are working at the grassroots,” he said. “They’re working in the prisons. They’re not sitting in some ivory tower.”

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