Tough-on-crime approach won't work, says church advocacy group

  • September 24, 2008
Tough-on-crime election promises released this week by the Conservative Party don't much impress the Church Council on Justice and Corrections.

Lorraine Berzins, who leads the crime and punishment think tank from the position of "community chair of justice," said she understands that people are afraid of violent crime, but basing government policy on fear is going to be costly and ineffective.

"I don't think it's wise or reasonable to think of imposing life sentences on adolescents, 14-year-olds, just for the sake of retribution and deterrence," Berzins said. "All the evidence we have is that that is just not effective."

The idea that adult criminals think through the consequences of their actions has been thoroughly discredited, Berzins said. She finds it hard to believe that anyone thinks an emotional teenager is deterred by the sentence imposed on somebody else.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections is funded by 11 of the largest church bodies in Canada, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Christians have lots of reasons to think hard about justice and corrections before casting a vote, according to Berzins.

"Christians really need to take stock of the fact our whole faith tradition is to follow the principals enacted and talked about by Jesus," she said. "That involves humanizing each other — dealing with each other as human beings — forgiving each other, taking care of each other, showing mercy as well as justice and having a vision of justice that encompasses mercy, and having policies that help us to move towards possibilities of the work of grace bringing about reconciliation and healing," she said.
On a practical level, the tough-on-crime approach is going to cost Canadians a lot of money we just don't have, said Berzins. Minimum sentences, sending more kids to adult trials, and going to war against drugs will back up our court system with long, expensive trials and require both provinces and the federal government to spend billions on new prisons, she said.

"A Christian should be concerned because first of all the whole issue of stewardship in terms of how we use our resources," she said.

Literacy programs, addiction counselling, rehabilitation and retraining programs in the jails are all expensive, but not nearly as expensive as building more prisons to keep more criminals locked up longer only to have them emerge unfit for anything but a life of crime, said Berzins.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections has released its own election fact sheet and questions for candidates. It is also running an education effort aimed at parishes called "Criminal Justice at A Crossroads: Are We Called as Christians to New Hearts and Minds?".

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