Here is a truly bizarre article by Tom Flanagan. He argues that while rates of crime and violence have been going down for decades, these rates are nonetheless too high and so we should be throwing people into prison with increasing gusto. He is saying that the balanced policies that we have relied on for decades, policies that understood the need for prisons but also the risks of overzealous use of them – and which have seen a steady decline in crime – should be thrown out in favour of tougher policies and more incarceration. In other words, what we have been doing is working quite well so to speed things up, let’s do the opposite? I don’t think so.
To bolster his point he talks about comparisons in crime between the U.S. and Canada, rightly pointing out that such comparisons are tricky because of definitional problems. (He then goes on to point out that car theft is worse up here.) Flanagan does admit that murder rates are much much higher in the U.S. but, wait, wait – and this is my favourite part – he points out that he can actually find some communities in the U.S that compare favourably with some communities in Canada. In other words, if you work hard enough at it, you can convince yourself to ignore the evidence.
But perhaps the most dangerous part of the article is the so-called economic argument that the costs of incarceration are somehow offset by the “crime prevention” savings of having people locked up because they are not committing crimes while incarcerated. (The notion that they would be committing crimes at some predetermined rate if they were not locked up is itself pretty weird but lets leave that to another day.) Tom Flanagan is too smart to be arguing this. Putting people in jail – and we have been doing this already far more than many other countries – may sometimes be the only appropriate option available – but before we start quantifying the “savings” created by incarceration, we ought to have a closer look at the longer term costs to Canadians, and one doesn’t have to look far to see that high rates of incarceration do not reduce crime. We know that prisons are hard places and the longer offenders spend inside the tougher it is for them to reintegrate into the community as law-abiding citizens. . Serious crime must be treated seriously . Punishment must be just and proportional. People’s fears matter. Sometimes prison is the only just option. But we serve best if we attend to the evidence of what actually works to improve safety.
Punitive policies will just make things worse. When we start to go down this road it’s awfully hard to get off. We get tougher and tougher, crime and violence increase, and we get tougher and tougher. Ideology pretending to be analysis, pandering to our shared fears, this is not how to do crime policy.