Find real solutions to fight against crime

By  Irvin Waller, Catholic Register Special
  • July 12, 2007
{mosimage}It is disappointing to see church groups responding to the political debate in Canada by seriously debating whether minimum sentences for gun crime are too long or not.  They will never win. Debating in the arbitrary ether about what is a fair penalty will always lead to increases in punishment — to the cost of taxpayers and little benefit to our safety.
The federal Conservatives, NDP and Liberals are engaged in a competition to see who can appear toughest on crime. The parties are using Bill C-10, increasing minimum penalties for gun crime, to demonstrate their toughness. What Canadians need is a competition which shows them who can be the smartest at reducing crime. If the political parties cannot get there, the Canadian public and its churches can.

 We need to do better at reducing victimization, and we can only achieve this with policies based on facts and reason rather than populism. From mass shootings to break-and-enters, Canadians are victims of violence and property crimes at unacceptable rates. This year again, one in four adults will be a victim of a crime. A staggering 100,000 children will suffer abuse and 500,000 women will be sexually assaulted.

The cumulative loss, trauma and injury to Canada, to all of us, is too often overlooked. Justice Canada estimates the economic cost to exceed $47 billion. On top of this, taxpayers spend more than $13 billion on the reactive system of police, prisons and judges. The problem is not just the reaction, but our over-reliance on reaction — what police, courts and prisons do after the crime has already happened and the victims have already suffered. Yet, public opinion in Canada is two-to-one in favour of investing more in pre-crime prevention — diverting youth from crime.

There is no doubt that there is a need to face these statistics head-on and have the courage to take the action to reduce these appalling and totally unacceptable rates of victimization. The good news is that there is an accumulation of research that is optimistic about how changes in pre-crime prevention policy would achieve large reductions in crime and violence. Minimum penalties are not high up on the list of actions serious research tells us will work to reduce crime.

We are no longer in the 18th century, when crime policy had to be based on populism and gut feeling. Over the past five years, a number of authoritative commissions — such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. National Research Council and the United Nations — have reviewed all that research and endorsed prevention as effective, cost-beneficial and sustainable.

What sorts of initiatives have been proven to work? Projects that help children develop successfully in their early years, reduce child abuse immediately and over time avoid juvenile delinquency; projects that help teenagers at risk of dropping out to complete school; programs that reach out to mentor those youth who feel excluded and hopeless — all these have a track record and have been proven to prevent crime.

Canada is producing much of the best research on preventing violence against women. We will stop much of the bullying in school now, and violence in the home later on, by including in the school curriculum training on how to manage relationships and resolve conflicts peacefully.

Some of the most successful strategies to stop urban epidemics in gun violence did not tinker with the criminal code. Rather they focused smarter law enforcement with analysis of where and when to intervene, and empowered churches and youth services to provide alternatives to gang membership. Boston is the most impressive example of this.

Experts know that crime prevention must be delivered in a sustained, evidence-based and integrated way by all orders of government. Initiatives can be successful and sustained when governments create secretariats that bring together schools, housing, social services, policing and other partners to tackle the risk factors that cause crime. 

All this will require a shift from our over-reliance on reaction and enforcement to more significant investments and innovation in what works to prevent crime. It will require reason and being smart about crime. It will require greater investment before crime occurs. It will require debates in Parliament about legislation and programs that will cut those appalling statistics in half.

The Canadian Chiefs of Police and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities are clear that the way to reduce crime is to be smarter in addressing its causes.  Why not the churches?

(Irvin Waller is the director of the Institute for the Prevention of Crime and professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.)

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